The Nation: The Fall of Chairman Wilbur Mills

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From the stage of Boston's Pilgrim Theater, a seedy burlesque house in the city's newly designated "Combat Zone" for sex films and ecdysiast exhibitions, a shapely, silken-gowned Fanne Foxe, "the Argentine Firecracker," had a surprise for her audience. "I'd like you to meet somebody," she said, then called to the wings: "Mr. Mills, Mr. Mills! Where are you?" Onto the stage strode Arkansas Congressman Wilbur Daigh Mills, 65, the redoubtable Democratic chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. Placing a hand on Fanne's shoulder, Mills began a brief exchange of quips with the audience, then received a kiss on the cheek from his favorite stripper and calmly walked offstage. With that unlikely bit of business, Mills' distinguished 36-year legislative career came crashing down around him.

It was one of the steepest falls from power in congressional history. Mills, the overlord of federal revenue legislation, whose Ways and Means Committee has responsibility for drafting major tax, trade and Social Security bills, has long savored his reputation as the most powerful man in Congress. The spectacle of one of the House's most revered elder statesmen cavorting onstage with a stripper sent shock waves through Congress, most especially members of Mills' own party. In sorrow, House Speaker Carl Albert announced that Mills would not be Ways and Means chairman when the 94th Congress convened in January. A confused and ailing Mills checked himself into the Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., for a checkup and a badly needed rest.

Reports that the once dignified, upright Mills, married to his wife Polly for 40 years, was drinking heavily and carousing in Washington nightspots had been circulating for months. The rumors became public scandal after the Tidal Basin incident of last October, when Mills' car was stopped late at night by Washington police. The car contained five passengers, including Mills and Mrs. Annabella Battistella, 38, a frequent companion of his in the past year, who worked as a striptease dancer at a Washington nightclub under the name of Fanne Fox. Fanne leaped from the car, ran toward a small estuary of the Potomac River known as the Tidal Basin, and jumped or fell into the water. She was rescued by a policeman.

Fatal Foray. The incident threatened Mills' re-election chances in the first contest to offer a Republican challenge to his seat since he initially won it 36 years ago. Nonetheless, Mills gained re-election in November by a comfortable majority. Though his powers as chairman were due to be curbed by a reform-minded Democratic caucus in any case, it looked as if he could keep his chair if he was willing to fight for it. Then came his fatal foray into Boston, a trip that Mills undertook, he later told newsmen, to dispel rumors that he had been having an affair with Fanne Foxe. The trip had exactly the opposite result, and saddened and dismayed House members declared that Mills had to go.

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