"I don't have any idea where she is. I don't have any feelings against her. I don't know if, or how much, I hurt her. I just don't have any idea." Whilbur Mills walks to the kitchen to empty an ashtray and says quietly," All I can say is, I'm not going to blame her."
Mills looks away in embarrassment for the first time, after all the direct and open answers, as he speaks of Fanne Foxe, the stripteaser police found him with drunk at the Tidal Basin three years ago - the night that toppled his career as one of Washington's most powerful men.
At noon, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday without fail, Mills leaves his two-bedroom Arlington apartment with its old-fashioned lace dining-room tablecloth, the plastic birds in crystal goblets, the crossword-puzzle dictionary and books on "24 Hour Meditations," the handsome mahogany bar, still filled with dusty glasses, but now a file cabinet for notes and a Sears catalog.
At a nearby restaurant, the manager greets him effusively. At first glance, it is your ordinary businessman's lunch crowd. But the waiter instantly offers coffee, not drinks.
Instead of holding court in a lavishly appointed Capitol Hill office Mills now holds court with other A. A.'s, who regard him as their hero. They file over to him - a State Department official, a doctor, a millionaire who models on the side, two Capitol Hill aides, a former Air Force pilot.
There is robust talk about the holidays: "How were the grandchildren, Wilbur?" "Oh, just fine, how was your trip to the Homestead?" The talk inevitably gets around to alcohol. Soon Mills joins in. He talks about a meeting he attended while visiting his daughter and grandchildren in New Jersey. "This one woman was just so pathetic. She was drunk and she had six kids and she kept saying no one loved her. I tried to reassure her that everyone in that room would help her, give her a chance."
As they left the restaurant, his wife, Polly, herself a recovered alcoholic, who had been silent through most of the talk, says, "It's not all dreary. We have fun. Alcoholics are not at all like I thought they'd be. You know, the scum of the earth."
This month Mills will become a six-figure corporate tax consultant for Shea Gould Climenko & Casey. The new job will not keep him from those daily luncheons.
"Some things are more important than your job. Like staying sober." Double Life
His life is still an inexplicable Greek tragedy to those who saw Mills function as an almost legendary figure on the Hill; inordinately polite but always a bit aloof, a man of few intimates and not one to party, Sphinx-like in his decision making, almost dazzling in his ability to predict a majority vote.
By day he was the master legislator who defied presidents, the man corporate giants like Henry Ford II and the chairmen of railroads sought to influence. They courted and feared him: for years Mills was the key to some of the most important legislation that affected this nation. He ruled over the Ways and Means Committee, that controlled the nation's tax and tariff structure, the Social Security and public welfare systems.
At night, Mills would down vast quantities of alcohol - a quart or two of vodka an evening, prowl strip joints and carry on with Foxe to the point that his wife would periodically leave him. Mills managed his double life so well that most people on the Hill were astounded when the head-lines came.
Actually, Mills' heavy drinking began in 1969. When he was also downing pain pills daily, to ease the pain of a ruptured spinal disc. By 1973, when he was operated on for his back problems, Mills drinking increased.
"How could they know?" he now says. "I didn't drink in the morning, until near the end. I tried to make excuses for myself - that I was drinking on weekends or at night and it was my business. But in politics you have no personal life.
"I was just having a good time," he says, recalling his nights at the Silver Slipper. "I never thought people would recognize me. I was protected by everyone. Nobody even tried to gyp me. You know those girls who would sell wine for $30 a bottle or so? The managers wouldn't let them do that to me." He paused. "I was shielded even there." Blackouts
At 68, Mills is a slim, little man, barely 5-feet-8, immaculately groomed in his sharply creased brown trousers, polished brown shoes, camel's hair coat. His gray hair is parted and slicked back just so. A perfectionist, Mills can't stand to have anything out of place and constantly brushes off lint no one else can even see on his brown socks. His almost nondescript look is saved by expressive eyes that twinkle behind thick glasses. The only telltale sign of a former drinker is his bulbous nose that looks as if crafted of paper mache. He is ever-courtly with women, rushing to open doors and pull out chairs, and he cracks jokes about himself with "the boys." "I was once asked about Elizabeth Ray and I said, 'Well, that's one I didn't know."
Mills' gravelly voice is calm. His hands are the only sign of nervousness as he sits in his Crytal Towers apartment; he fiddles with his Benson and Hedges packages, lights cigarettes and mashes them out, jingles change in his pockets.
Never one for philosophical introspection, he does not speak colorfully of his days on the Hill. He is at his most animated discussing his struggles with alcohol.
He recalls the awful depressions of his dryouts, the guilts, the terrifying DTs (delirium tremens) "when buzzards came at me in a desert so thick I couldn't see the sunlight," Mills kept his vodka in the refrigerator so he could drink it neat - "I was afraid I might swallow the ice cubes and strangle."
The blackouts haunt him still. "You're not insane. First you don't remember where you parked the car. Toward the end, I do not even remember one meeting I had with President Ford at the White House." This, from the man who at the height of his career fought President Johnson to the hilt - opposing the President's 10 per cent surcharge tax and won.
He now shakes his head as he recalls the night he appeared reeling drunk on stage with Fanne Foxe in a Boston burlesque house. A few days later he was trying to get his colleagues to override a veto by President Ford. "I had no embarrassment or feeling of 'unmitigated gall.' I simply had no remembrance of it." (Alcoholic experts say blackouts are not "convenient amnesia" but common to many alcoholics.)
The Mills began to patch up a devastated marriage 10 months at an expensive Florida alcoholic center that treats the entire family. Polly, now 70, has been sober since 1973 and Mills has not had a drink in three years. Polly Mills stayed with Mills after Fanne Foxe "to protect him and his name. I knew how sick he was." She waves away any talk of courageousness. "It's not courageous to save your own life." Insecurities
Drinking underscored Mills' ego problems. "When I drank, I always became something I wasn't. If I sat next to a prizefighter at a bar, then I became a champion prizefighter in college."
And Mills kept a too tight rein on his emotions. At one point, Mills says he was not all that excited about his new job. "I don't get that excited about anything." But later, he says maybe he really is emotional. "Perhaps that's why I drank. To hide what I am."
Above all, there were the hidden insecurities of a man who reached a life-long goal and had no friends to turn to when self-doubts set in. "There was always a question in my mind, when I would find myself disagreeing with a President, 'Well, mabye I'm wrong.' Of course, you wouldn't dare admit that.
"Toward the end" - as he always refers to his last years on the Hill "this built up a lot of pressure."
The after effects of drinking were terrible, he recalls. "I couldn't concentrate for more than a minute at a time without being thoroughly exhausted." Behind Closed Doors
Mills was elected in 1938 and became chairman of Ways and Means in 1958. The open meetings on House reforms came after Mills left. "Operating behind closed doors was the perfect setup for Wilbur's type of action," recalls Sam Gibbons (D-Fla.), a committee member who fought Mills and other committee members on "nefarious tax loopholes."
"He's get us in a room and, well supossing we were marking up a tax bill. He'd pass out a pamphlet and the print would be so small and the room so dark and the stuff so complicated! Then Larry Woodworth, his top expert, would start explaining. No one but Larry and Wilbur ever talked. You'd have to butt in to ask a question. Finally toward the end of the day, Wilbur'd say, 'Well let's put away that pamphlet and go on to the next subject.' You found out pretty soon that was 'decision making.' He was just so thorough and persistent and knew so much; he'd just wear you out. Did he ever take a vote? Oh no, we never voted.
"I awlays kid Wilbur about how he'd wait until Friday at 5 p.m. and everyone else would have scattered for airplanes and Mills and myself and Woodworth would be in the room. He'd say, "Now Larry, go out and brief the press and tell 'em what we decided.' Larry'd brief the press and everyone would read about it over the weekend and say, 'Gosh, that must be what we decided.' That's a bit of an exaggeration, but not much.
"Mills believed in the fine tuning of the tax system. He was conservative and very business attuned, a very popular philosophy among many then," says Gibbons.
Mills was also cautious and never risked defeat. Wilbur Cohen, Lyndon Johnson's Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, recalls, "I never, ever saw Wilbur take a position that didn't leave him an out." For years, Mills thwarted the administration on Medicare, careful never to indicate anything ideological about his stalling. It was always that he didn't have the votes.
Cohen was among many who thought the bill could have passed in 1964 with Mills' support (it passed in 1966). "But Mills always said that if he voted for it in committee, it could pass 13 to 12. Wilbur said, "That isn't enough, I want it 15 to 10. If I win by one vote, one guy who voted with me can easily blackmail me on future legislation.'"
Mills today recalls another example of his cautiousness. "In 1956, I wanted to go along with Sam Rayburn on the Civil Rights Act; just felt it was right. But he cautioned me not to sacrifice myself in the process and explained it could give rise to a lot of feeling in my state, a view borne out by the Little Rock incident of 1957." Mills did not go along. "You're always dealing in the realm of expediency and compromise when you legislate." Hope and Help
For all his power, Mills remained the little man from Kensett, Ark., population around 1,000, the son of the owner of the leading general store and bank. Let other congressmen take their European junkets: Mills once told a friend that the only time he visited a foreign country was when he was in Detroit, and walked across the bridge to Windsor in Canada.
His one goal, even as a child, was to be chairman of the Ways and Means committee. "The biggest man I ever met back in Kensett was a congressman on the Ways and Means Committee. He would pat my head and tell my father I had the makings of a fine congressman. I didn't realize he was probably telling all fathers the same thing."
Once settled into his chairmanship, Mills made only one restive and, to most observers, ludicrous move. In 1972 he ran for President. His colleagues tried to joke Mills out of his aborted run. Gibbons said, "Wilbur, why do you want to run for President - and give up your grip on the country?"
Today, Mills says he has no desire to return to politics. "I'm tired of it all.
"But I hope people would remember the whole of my life - the various legislation we passed - Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, the highway program, trade legislation. And I hope in time there will be a full understanding about what it is to be an alcoholic; that it is an illness and you can be helped."
He takes a deep breath.
"If I hadn't had those things happen to me, I'd have been dead by now. It would never have occurred to me to ask anyone for help. I want people to know that I've enjoyed the last two and a half years better than any time in my life."