sex scandals

Fanne Foxe, Wilbur Mills, and a Tale of Washington Hubris

Wilbur Mills and Fanne Foxe at the scene of his political self-destruction in 1974. Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

News today of the death at 84 of Annabel Battistella, better known by her burlesque stage name of Fanne Foxe, brought back memories of the lost golden age of Washington sex scandals. In October of 1974, Foxe — called the “Argentine Firecracker” by her promoters — was rescued from the icy waters of the Tidal Basin, into which she had plunged to evade photographers who found her escort for the evening, Arkansas congressman Wilbur Mills, nearby in a car that had been stopped by the police for driving without headlights. After a series of confusing professions of innocence by Mills, accompanied by his reelection to a 19th term in the U.S. House, Foxe returned to exotic dancing (now redubbed the “Tidal Basin Bombshell”) —until an extremely inebriated Mills appeared on the stage with her in Boston and quickly ended his long political career.

The incident represented a morality tale about Washington hubris. Mills wasn’t just some backwoods solon. The word “powerful” invariably preceded his name in press descriptions. He was chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee for 18 years and was, by all accounts, second only to the president in terms of his influence at any given time. In good and bad ways he had a decisive effect on the shape and size of the Medicare and Medicaid programs, on Social Security expansions he supervised, and on a wide variety of tax measures. Mills was also an obdurate opponent of all civil-rights legislation, much like other southern “New Deal Democrats” who viewed racism as the price of admission to political power.

Mills’s escapades with Fanne Foxe showed how out of control he had become; once he was deposed from his Ways and Means chairmanship after the Boston incident, he began treatment for alcoholism, and retired from Congress at the end of his term, at the relatively young age of 65. But arguably the even greater sign of his hubris, fed by decades of Beltway obeisance, was his presidential candidacy two years earlier, in 1972.

Mills wasn’t the first congressional potentate to imagine his power in Washington made him presidential timber (there’s a reason no member of Congress won the presidency between Warren G. Harding and John F. Kennedy); nor would he be the last (as Howard Baker, Lloyd Bentsen, and Phil Gramm, among others, would show). But Mills cut a ludicrous figure in the snows of New Hampshire in 1972, where his civil-rights record was an absolute deal-breaker and his mastery of the tax code went unappreciated. Despite a lavishly funded campaign, he finished with 4 percent of the vote in New Hampshire, behind the equally unlikely Los Angeles mayor Sam Yorty. His candidacy was effectively over, but he managed to stick around long enough to become both subject and object of a backstage “Anybody But McGovern” effort, just prior to the convention, that revolved around talk of a Kennedy-Mills ticket. It seemed very clear that he could only succeed behind closed doors, as Joe Klein recalled a few years later:

The fact that no one ever really saw Wilbur Mills in action made him seem that much more powerful. [Ways & Means] 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?”

The only thing arguably more public than a presidential campaign was the appearance at that Boston strip club, where Mills was quoted as saying: “This won’t ruin me … Nothing can ruin me.” Turns out, nobody — not even the powerful chairman of the Ways and Means Committee — is entirely immune to consequences.

Soon politicians would not have to be as blatant in drunkenness and sexual misconduct to attract the kind of attention Mills courted, but it did take a while. When another, vastly more famous congressional potentate ran for president in 1980, The New Republic spiked a commissioned story about Ted Kennedy’s “women problem” (it was subsequently published by the Washington Monthly amid a lot of clucking about the “personal” nature of the piece’s revelations). Eight years after that, Gary Hart’s front-running presidential candidacy was torpedoed when he taunted reporters to “follow me around” in search of scandalous behavior, and they found some.

Meanwhile, Fanne Foxe sojourned on the best she could, as the Washington Post recalls:

After the Mills-Battistella relationship became public, Ms. Battistella made the rounds on TV and parlayed her notoriety into starring roles (clothed) in low-budget films and an off-Broadway production called “Women Behind Bars.” She gave up exotic dancing after she was arrested in December 1974 at a go-go club near Orlando and charged with public indecency; a judge cleared her of the charge.

The next year, she was living with her children in Westport, Conn., in an eight-bedroom, seven-bath manse called Tally-Ho that needed constant upkeep. The only stripping she was doing, she told a reporter, involved paint.

She outlived Wilbur Mills by 28 years. And with her death, the Tidal Basin scandal and the implosion of a bloated Washington career will likely retreat into obscurity. But the lessons live on.

Fanne Fox, Wilbur Mills, and a Tale of Washington Hubris