Wibur Mills, former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, stood before an audience last week, calm, relaxed, dignified.
"They brought people to see me, to try to convince me that it's possible for a person to have gone beyond the sixth grade in school and be an alcoholic," he told them.
"They brought to see me, to talk to me, to try to convince me that it was possible for a person not to have lost a job and still be an alcoholic . . .
"It was possible for a person to be in the Congress of the United States and be a alcoholic . . . but still they weren't convincing me."
Watching the audience of about 150 people at the annual meeting of WACADA (The Washington Area Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, Inc.), it was apparent that Wilbur Mills had lost none of his persuasiveness as a speaker.
"But I had a concept of an alcoholic," he said, " a drunk I call him. I never used the term alcoholic. I knew what a drunk was. I could go down on 9th Street here in Washington. I could see them.
"You couldn't get a round them without smelling them. THey hadn't had baths in months. They hadn't had shaves in months. They didn't look like I looked. They didn't have a job, they didn't have position in life or anything of that sort.This was my concept of an alcoholic.
"I didn't realize then - I know now - that my conception of an alcoholic represented only 3 percent of all of the alcoholics, both practicing and recovering, in this country, 3 percent of them, roughly referred to as bowery-type alcoholics, or wines. The rest of the alcoholics, those who are practicing now, are not easily detected. They don't get out and make a lot of racket like I do."
The man making the racket, albeit a quiet racket, hasn't had a drink in more than three years - since several months after his drinking problem became public knowledge when he was discovered by park police at the Tidal Basin with dancer Fanne Foxe. The incident led to the end of his 33-year career as a powerful force on Capitol Hill.
At first, he said, he was "absolutely ashamed to be an alcoholic.
"I am not ashamed of being a recovering alcoholic today. My attitude today is one entire change."
Mills spoke of "building an alcoholism constituency," which "includes the concept of changing attitudes toward alcoholics and alcoholism by community. It involves not only that," he said, "but it involves an acceptance of alcoholism as a disease, and not a moral matter."
He stressed the importance of changing attitudes before anything can be done to help "the rest of the alcoholics," the other 97 percent, many of them who don't even realize that they are alcoholics.
"I'm not going to say I'm proud to be one," he said. "I've heard some people say that. Maybe in time I'll be proud. But I'll tell you one thing, i am very proud that if I have to have a disease, it's alcoholism. I'll tell you why: It's possible for a person who is an alcoholic to do something about it."
A Washington-based, non-profit agency that serves the greater metropolitan area, WACADA provides information and referral services for people with alcohol and drug problems by means of a 24-hour hotline, 466-2323.
It has an advocacy program disigned to focus public attention on alcohol and other drug use and abuse, and supports and initiates legal action to develop effective prevention and treatment programs for alcoholism and drug abuse.
WACADA also monitors the enforcement of the D.C. Alcoholism Rehabilitation Act of 1968, districutes literature on substance abuse, publishes a catalog of areawide resources for addiction problems and coordinates a network of volunteer activities catering to various groups in the community.
Mills' speech highlighted the program in which awards were presented for service to WACADA during the past year. Howard A. Maxwell, chief of the D.C. Employe Consultation and Counseling Service received the Annual WACADA Community Service Award, the highest award given by the agency.
More than 100 people received citations for service and three awards were given to members of the media for their help in publicizing information on substance abuse. The media awards went to Karen Hirschberg of WTOP-TV, Ed Turney of WJLA-TV and Calvin Goddard Zon of The Washington Star.