The massive chandelier in the Ways and Means Committee room glittered ever so brightly the day Wilbur Mills became a liberal. The oil paintings of former committee chairmen — including a huge one of Wilbur himself — hung ever so regally on the pale green walls. The carpet was the color of musty, well-traveled $100 bills. The two black door keepers strutted about with the pride of field hands recently promoted to the main house. The trappings of power remained firmly emplaced, but beneath the surface there were strange rumblings….
Two extra tables had been added for reporters who sensed that big doings were about to take place. Their suspicions were confirmed when Polly Mills was ushered into a front-row seat in the visitors’ gallery — a rare appearance by the chairman’s wife, which prompted a committee staff member to speculate, “Either Wilbur made her come as a show of unity…or she came on her own to keep tabs on him.”
She sat there demurely, a pleasant gray-haired woman, receiving well-wishers and glancing warily over to the press tables where a reporter was opening the early edition of the Washington Star-News, gasping and saying, “Holy Shit! Look at this.”
And there, beneath the breathless headline, “Tidal Basin Bombshell Bares All,” was a picture of that other woman in Mr. Mills’s life, Ms. Fanne Foxe. With no clothes on. With a nipple peeking out from beneath an almost strategically placed arm. With a crowd of men leering up at her during her debut as an exotic dancer in a Boston strip joint.
Just then, Mr. Mills entered the room, taking his seat at the head of the horseshoe table. A photographer closed in, shooting the chairman from various angles as Mills chatted with members and staff. He is a deceptively small man with large shoulders and head — with his gray hair slicked back and his wire-rimmed glasses he often looks like Lyndon Johnson in miniature. Like Johnson too, he has the reputation of being a master manipulator, the type who’s at his best behind closed doors wheedling and cajoling, sweatily fondling the levers of power.
Mills was followed to the table by the other committee members. They were, by and large, not very distinguished-looking men who, if one weren’t aware of their lofty station, might easily have been mistaken for the steering committee of the local Rotary Club or, perhaps, for those men leering up at Fanne Foxe in Boston. They took their places at the horseshoe table and stared out at their audience — several hundred very well-dressed men and women seated in navy blue leather chairs. The lobbyists. The representatives of the rich and powerful, sitting there as securely as the gold in Fort Knox, watching their public servants closely for even the vaguest sign of a misstep. Taking notes.
This was not going to be a good day for the lobbyists, though. For years they had held sway over the men on the other side of the table, but now, on November 19th, 1974, that was changing. Part of the reason was the copy of the Washington Star-News that was being passed down the press table to Congressman Bill Archer (R-Texas) who, receiving it, began to laugh uncontrollably. Much more important were the young liberals who would be invading the Congress in just a few weeks, unbought and unbossed.
Wilbur Mills knew they would be a threat to his power. He knew that the newcomers — and not the friendly lobbyists who’d bankrolled his 1972 presidential bid — would be his most important judges now. He had to establish credibility with them, and to do that he would have to get a tax reform package out of committee. It would have to be a package that eliminated that most hallowed of tax dodges, the oil depletion allowance. It was a desperate and obvious move, and one that was likely to fail, but it was all he had left.
And so Wilbur Mills gaveled the Ways and Means Committee to order, fully aware that 50 years of oil company domination of government might be coming to an end because of the ironic combination of public reaction to a deposed Republican president and a 38-year-old stripper.
The pressures had been there from the beginning of the year — the long gas lines, the public howl over oil company profits, and the far more serious intimations that if Richard Nixon were to go, he might drag down the whole Washington establishment with him. But Wilbur Mills had been pushed before, and had survived. In the early Sixties, despite tremendous pressure, Mills had dallied for years with Medicare legislation before allowing it out of his committee. In the early Seventies, he had done the same with revenue sharing.
Since 1957, when he became the youngest Ways and Means Committee chairman in history (he was 48), Mills had continually managed to outfox his colleagues and maintain a stranglehold over the committee, which handles all tax legislation and most other bills involving money. He’d done it artfully, by balancing his natural affinity for big business — more than half the contributions to his presidential campaign came from milk, oil and financial groups — against the gnatlike proddings of the liberals…and by sheer intimidation. Most of this was accomplished quietly, without much publicity, since committee meetings were held behind closed doors until this year. (The doors were finally opened in response to pressures by Common Cause and other reform groups.) The fact that no one ever really saw Wilbur Mills in action made him seem that much more powerful. Committee member Sam Gibbons (D-Florida), a paunchy Jimmy Stewart type, was only mildly indulging in hyperbole when he asked Mills in 1972, “Wilbur, why do you want to run for president and give up your grip on the country?”