REFLECTIONS ABOUT Rogers C. B. Morton really have to start with his size. He was a towering man, white-haired, easy to spot in a tumultuous Republican convention or on the floor of the House. But Mr. Morton, who died of cancer in Easton Thursday, stood out more because he was so genial warmhearted and easy to like. He enjoyed politics, the combat and the camaraderie. With a seemingly inexhaustible store of friends and stories, he was a masterful campaigner, an effective persuader and a superb storyteller.
Politically, Mr. Morton combined a businessman's economic caution with the conservationist instincts of a farmer, the easy-going style of a patrician and a gentleman's sense of integrity. That reflected his heritage, as did his middle names - Clark, after Revolutionary War Hero and outdoorsman George Rogers Clark, and Ballard, for the side of his family that had prospered in the food-processing field. But Mr. Morton often said his middle initials stood for "Chesapeake Bay," and he was so at home with the nature and people of the Eastern Shore that it was easy to forget that he had moved there from Kentucky at the age of 38.
In terms of laws and programs, Mr. Morton's best legacy was to the Bay country, which he served in Congress for nine years. His efforts were crucial in establishing the Assateague Island National Seashore and launching the Corps of Engineers' huge research model of Chesapeake Bay.
On the national stage, Mr. Morton served creditably as secretary of the interior and commerce and as a White House counselor under Presidents Nixon and Ford. In those roles he had some success in promoting energy development and injecting environmental safeguards into projects such as the Alaska pipeline and offshore oil exploration.
Mr. Morton's most impressive work was as a Republican party leader and strategist. In times of political turmoil and nastiness - in 1964 as well as 1974 - he was a sturdy voice against deviousness and distruct. He tried doggedly to make the GOP more open, more tolerant of dissenters and more appealing to a wide swath of the electorate. If he had been younger, healthier, more ambitious, less loyal or more inclined to play the moral censor's role, he might have come into public view more clearly as a champion of political integrity. Even so, his spirit and doggedness helped bolster other Republicans and rehabilitate the party after Watergate. Then, as always, Rogers Morton stood as proof that politcs can be decent, compassionate and fun.