Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,607

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,607


This is the grave of Frank Moss.

Born in Holladay, Utah in 1911, Moss grew up pretty well off. His father was a prominent high school teacher who also did a lot to bring high school athletics to Utah. He graduated from high school in 1929, then went to the University of Utah, where he was a history and speech major, finishing there in 1933. Ambitious, he went to law school at George Washington University. He starred there, becoming editor of the school’s law review. A good New Dealer, he also did work while in law school for various government agencies, including the National Recovery Administration, Resettlement Administration, and Farm Credit Administration. After finishing his degree in 1937, he took a job with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

In 1939, Moss decided to return to Utah. Politically ambitious, he knew he needed to go home if he wanted that in his life. He opened a practice in Salt Lake City and ran for a judgeship in the city’s municipal court in 1940, which he won. During World War II, he joined the Navy and worked in the judge advocate general’s office. He came back, ran for judge again, and then in 1950, became county attorney for Salt Lake County, which he held until 1959. He also ran his own law firm with a couple of partners.

So Moss is really just a guy into middle age, a lost breed today, the Mormon liberal. He ran for governor in 1956 as a Democrat, but lost to L.C. Romney, one of the zillion Republicans of that clan. But we need to take a step back here. Utah was always a pretty political conservative state, but it was nothing like the Utah of today. Democrats absolutely could win there and often did, even liberal ones like Moss. That wasn’t just in Salt Lake City either. Still, Moss got very lucky in 1958 when he ran for the Senate. Utah Republicans were divided. Arthur Watkins was the conservative Mormon Eisenhower ally running for reelection. But he had played a key role in bringing down Joseph McCarthy and a sizable portion Utah Republicans were furious with their hero being taken out by one of their own. Watkins did win the primary over an even farther-right Republican named J. Bracken Lee, a former governor of the state. Lee did not take losing to Watkins laying down, so he ran for the general election as an independent. Moss thus won, though with less than 40 percent of the vote.

Now, you might think that in this kind of circumstance, Moss would legislate from a relatively conservative space. But he did not and he managed to become a real power in the Senate as an unabashed liberal from a conservative state. His big early push was for Medicaid and though he was still a pretty junior senator in 1965 when that became law, he won a second term in 1964 on these issues, running that time against the president of BYU, Frank Wilkinson. Wilkinson was such a lunatic right-winger that he actually banned the economics department at his university from teaching Keynesianism. Moss handled him.

Moss became the kind of Democrat that Ralph Nader liked, someone very focused on both environmental and consumer issues, as well as his larger concerns around poverty and healthcare. As he aged into the job, he became the leading water expert in the Senate, which is a good place for a western senator to be and he wrote a book about it. He pushed for the creation of the national parks in Utah. Given how unbelievably hated the national monuments created by Clinton and Obama are in that state, it’s a sign of just how far right Utah has moved in the decades since Moss represented them in Washington. Moss was particularly critical in creating Capitol Reef and Canyonlands.

Moss continued working on health care issues, especially Medicare fraud, doing his own investigations, such as going to clinics for tests just to see what would happen and finding doctors massively overcharging the government for unnecessary procedures. He also wanted hospice programs covered my Medicare and in 1974, he and Frank Church, his fellow Rocky Mountain liberal, started pushing a bill on this. Neither would still be around in 1982 when it became law, but they did key work here. He sponsored the bill forcing cigarette companies to put health hazard listings on their labels. He sponsored a lot of other consumer rights based legislation–the Toy Safety Act, the Product Safety Act, Consumer Product Warranty and Guarantee Act (Magnuson-Moss Act was its popular name), the Poison Prevention Packaging Act. He sponsored the legislation to create the Office of Inspector General in the Department of Health and Human Services. Moss was one of Nader’s favorite senators for working on such legislation, a reliable go to for these crusaders. He had published articles exposing the horrors of the nursing home industry. He was a huge proponent of the space industry and chaired the relevant subcommittee on the issue in the Senate. He also opposed the Vietnam War.

There was one issue on which Moss was definitely not a liberal and that was abortion. He was a Mormon after all. He pushed for a constitutional amendment to overturn Roe and outlaw all abortion. This is a huge stain on his record from my perspective. But the rest of the record is really strong, especially for Utah. Overall, he was popular among fellow Democrats. Often called “the conscience of the Senate,” he rose to third in Democratic leadership in that body.

Moss ran for a fourth term in 1976. He faced a no one–a whacko right-winger named Orrin Hatch. No one thought Hatch had a chance. But American politics were changing. Hatch defeated Moss by going super far-right–openly saying he loved Ronald Reagan, accusing Moss of not supporting great things in Utah like strip mining, and basically saying that he was a communist who wanted to nationalize private land. In Utah, the growing anger at everything that seemed to threaten their values led to embracing Hatch. It did not help that the state had decided to put fluoride in the water supply in 1976 and this added another spark to the tinder box. After all, we all know that fluoride gets in the way of our purity of essence. Rick Perlstein uses this election to set up the changing politics of the nation at the beginning of his majestic Reaganland, which is one of the only history books I keep in my home office because it is such a useful reference book for both the grave and obituary projects.

After his defeat, Moss went back to his law practice, working in both Utah and Washington, D.C. No Democrat has represented Utah in the Senate since his defeat. He died in 2003, at the age of 91.

Frank Moss is buried in Salt Lake Cemetery, Salt Lake City, Utah.

When I was visiting Moss, so was someone else. I took a picture of this fine fellow snoozing on a nearby grave until I drove up.

Not the first time I’ve run into a coyote in a cemetery either. Good habitat for them and this one looks perfectly well-fed too.

If you would like this series to visit other senators elected in the 1958 midterms, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Howard Cannon is in Arlington, though he represented Nevada in the Senate. Philip Hart is in Mackinac Island, Michigan. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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