The gravel voice and bulbous nose are the same, and the broad, warm smile hasn't changed. But something in Wilbur Mills' eyes tells you he's well aware, thank you, that it's the former chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee you're talking to -- not the master legislator, the inscrutable Mr. Tax Law of the 1960's and early 1970s.
Brought down in 1973 by the Demon Rum and stripper named Fanne Foxe, former representative Wilbur Daigh Mills (D-Ark.), once Capitol Hill's ultimate word on tax matters and nearly everyone's nominee for the most powerful man in Congress, is holding court at a downtown restaurant.
Good morning Mr. Chairman," a lobbyist proffers deferentially, one of a number of passersby paying their respects. "Nice day, Mr. Chairman," another old hand says, with a salute. Mills responds brightly, greeting each well-wisher by the correct first name and returning some of the banter.
Today, Mills -- still Mr. Chairman to most folks and still immaculately dressed in a conservative brown suit and the kind of aviator-style glasses he bought for an ill-starred presidential campaign in 1972 -- spends his workdays in a nondescript fashion on the roster of a local low firm, solving relatively minor problems for clients.
His interests now are modest, involving hundreds of thousands of dollars, rather than billions. The major oil companies, which once contributed heavily to his campaign, aren't visible anymore.
Instead, Mills is caught up in the same sort of grist that occupies the mills of dozens of other tax lawyers in this city: An Oregon woman needs relief on the timing of her estate tax. An encyclopedia company wants to head off a requirement that its salesmen carry 3-by-5 cards announcing that they are soliciting. A railroad want help in qualifying for a tax credit.
It's a far cry from the helm of power he once held, but Mills, alert and still entranced by politics at 71, insists he's as satisfied now as he's ever been -- and far less harassed. "I not only have not regretted it, I haven't missed it," he insists, referring to his decline and disappearance from the center of power at the Capitol. "So many of the people I served with are gone."
There was no question who wielded the power during Mills' chairmanship. From 1958 through his downfall in 1973, tax legislation in Congress was almost entirely a one-man show -- written directed and produced by Wilbur D. Mills. And it was standing room only for lobbyists -- or anyone else -- who could get into the committee's tiny off-the-floor meeting room.
It was Mills, for example, who, in 1967 single-handedly prevented Lyndon B. Johnson, then president of the United States, from pushing through a special surtax to finance the Vietnam war. Mills simply sat on the legislation until Johnson finally acquiesced to cutting domestic spending to ease inflationary pressures. When he did, Mills let the tax bill through.
It also was Mills who rammed thecontroversial Medicare and Medicaid programs through Congress, over the objections of the then-influential medical lobby, and exacted the Democratic compromises that led to the revenue-sharing program.
Mills, along with Ways and Means minority leader John W. Byrnes (R-Wis.), orchestrated all tax bill, major and minor. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Russell B. Long (D-La.) played a decidedly secondary role.
All that changed in 1973, however, when Mills' previously proper country-lawyer image was shattered by a classic sex-and-alcohol scandal that set heads shaking all over Washington. Troubled by severe back pain, Mills had taken to nightcaps for relief. But the drinking had gone too far, and he soon found himself addicted -- and spending evenings, albeit discreetly, at local nightspots.
The attempt at discretion -- and Mills' career -- were thrown to the winds, however, when a photographer caught him in the company of stripper Foxe during a routine drunken-driving check that ended with the Argentine jumping into the Tidal Basin. After weeks of mortifying tongue-wagging around the Capitol, Mills finally was forced to step down -- and check into a treatment center. He emerged humbled but sobered and began rebuilding his life.
Mills' first instinct was to return to his native Kensett, Ark., a rural town of 1,400 where his family owns the general store and local bank. But he soon became restless and, as therapy, began making speeches about alcoholism. Not long after, he was back in Washington -- with a New York-based law firm that offered him a lucrative partnership.
Today Mills occupies relatively spartan quarters in an office on K Street NW. Although he's still widely remembered and respected on the Hill, he doesn't spend much time there, and when he does, it's mostly on routine "private" legislation. No weighty policy issues anyone. "I'm very seldon in touch" with the Hill, he says. "I think I've eaten up there three times" since stepping down.
What happens when a man loses all that glory and power?
Nothing, if he handles it right, Wilbur Mills attests.
Mills today looks much the same as he did during the peak of his stint as Ways and Means chairman: alert, impeccably dressed, hair slicked back at the sides, as he's worn it for years. Still courtly and attentive, he shows little trace of bitterness or even disappointment at his current situation.
"I think I had just gotten tired of it," he says. "I've never had that feeling" of resentment. He and his wife, Polly, who also was enbroiled in the Argentine-stripper controversy, live quietly in their Arlington apartment and spend most of their spare time helping other alcoholics. There are grandchildren to visit in their spare weekends.
During his days as chairman, Mills was reknowned for his detailed -- and closely held -- knowledge of the tax code. But ironically, these days he's more in demand for his expertise on alcoholism, and he's unabashed about dispensing advice whenever it's sought.
Frequently accompanied by his wife, the former Ways and Means chairman spend many of his weekends out of town, giving speeches on how to cope with the disease. He also counsels alcoholics individually. His mission, as it's become, takes Mills around the nation, occasionally in tandem with tax-law seminars.
Ever mindful of his own bad forture, Mills is unflinchingly sympathetic to the pleas of other alcoholics. When skeptics smirked recently that Rep. Robert Bauman (R-Md.) and several others were giving alcoholism a bad name by blaming it for their foibles -- as Mills did in 1975 -- the Arkansan was the first to come the their defense.
"I can't imagine anyone admitting he's an alcoholic unless it actually is true, with the kind of stigma it carries," Mills says. "I don't think they do that. I believe these men are genuine."
For all his time away from the Capitol, Mills hasn't lost any of his knack for sticking to the basics on major tax issues. Ronald Reagan's proposal for a 30 percent across-the-board income tax cut prompts Mills to assert:
"Inflationary, unless you couple it with spending cuts." So is the tax cut the Senate Finance Committee drafted, he believes.
In some ways, the Arkansan's shadow remains in the Ways and Means Committee room. Rep. Al Ullman (D.-Ore.), the current chairman, who himself has just been defeated, continually has suffered from the comparison that "he ain't no Wilbur Mills." But Mills himself decries such criticisms as unfair -- and seems to mean it. "Conditions are entirely different today," he argues. "It's more difficult to be chairman now."
Mills also brooks none of today's fashionable grousing that the new crop of congressmen is not measuring up to the older generation."The younger members are brighter and more well-informed," he says. "They don't even smoke anymore!"
He's also acutely conscious that alcoholism -- which is treatable but not fully curable -- could return to his life at any time. A teetotaler, Mills concedes that "I could pick up a drink right now, and in two hours I'd be drunk." His hope now is to try to interest nonalcoholics in the subject. "It's too great a problem," he says. "We've all got to get involved."