Almost every day, the man in the bow tie is whistling “Happy Birthday” to someone.
There are way too many for Chris Ullman to remember by heart, so he keeps the names in a spreadsheet on the computer in his Washington office at the international investment behemoth the Carlyle Group. He has whistled in the Oval Office and trilled for the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the chief executive of General Motors and members of Congress.
In a city that can sometimes be nasty and petty, stiff and cautious, Ullman’s ritual is one of those small, below-the-
radar signs of humanity. He thinks of it as “a ministry” of sorts, he says, one man’s gift, for which he receives no compensation other than a smile or a thank you. Ullman — a veteran political hand who’s been a top staffer at the Office of Management and Budget and the chief press spokesman for the SEC and now runs global communications for Carlyle — will whistle “Happy Birthday” more than 400 times this year. He’s up to 5,000 renditions since he started back in the mid-1990s. The ever-affable 53-year-old husband and father of three has done the math and figures that he’ll hit an additional 12,000 if he lives to 80.
And this is no ordinary serenade. Ullman is a preternaturally skilled whistler, a four-time world champion who turns the simple happy-birthday ditty into a complex riff and performs compositions as intricate as Mozart’s Oboe Concerto in C and Hummel’s Trumpet Concerto in E-flat with nothing but his lips, teeth and breath.
“I’m working on a new ‘Happy Birthday’ version,” says Ullman, who has written a memoir titled “Find Your Whistle: Simple Gifts Touch Hearts and Change Lives,” to be published in June by Mascot Books. “Kind of a hard-rock version. An AC/DC version.”
If he can’t make it in person, Ullman whistles over the phone — five or more times some days. One recent afternoon, he dials the number of his cousin’s wife’s best friend. He launches into “Happy Birthday” but stops abruptly. The voice mail thinks he’s a fax machine and hangs up. Happens all the time. So, instead, he records a version and emails it, along with his own best wishes.
Nothing stops the ritual. He’s whistled “Happy Birthday” while sitting in a taxiing jumbo jet in Istanbul and once whistled over the phone to a woman who was at the base of Mount Everest. He whistles every year for well-known Washington figures, such as his boss, billionaire financier and philanthropist David Rubenstein, and David Ferriero, the archivist of the United States. He whistles for journalists and pols, for the famous and the obscure, for people he’s known his whole life and for friends of friends of friends.
His philosophy is that everyone has a “whistle” — a gift they can share with the world.
Ullman spends his days navigating the high-intensity atmosphere of some of the biggest financial deals in the country. He has to say no a lot, he points out. No to interview requests. No to folks probing for details about his company’s maneuvers.
But he doesn’t look at whistling as a place to flee.
“It’s not an escape to me. It’s more an expansion,” he says. “The whistling has expanded my world to make it a healthier world.”
Ullman started whistling as a child, entertaining himself for hours on his paper route delivering Long Island Newsday. In the early 1990s, he started entering competitions, winning the contest held annually by the International Whistlers Convention four out of seven years from 1994 and 2000. Over the years, he’s whistled the national anthem at Major League Baseball and National Basketball Association games, done his thing on “The Tonight Show” and the “Today” show, from the top of the Washington Monument, and — in a peak lifetime experience — with the National Symphony Orchestra for an audience of 60,000 on the Mall. All the while, he fought paralyzing stage fright, the whistling serving to push him out of his comfort zone.
In 1995, Ullman — practiced in the Capitol staffer’s art of fading into the background — found himself being summoned from the back of the room by then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Tex.) during a tense budget negotiation.
“You with the bow tie,” Armey said. “Whistle for us.”
Ullman, who worked for John Kasich (R-Ohio), then chairman of the House Budget Committee, asked what Armey wanted to hear.
“ ‘Dixie,’ ” Armey barked.
When Ullman finished, the powerful men in the room filed out, and soon thereafter they shut down the United States government.
Armey, reached at home in Texas, said he remembers that day well. Armey said he thinks of Ullman every time he hears one of his favorite songs, the Kingston Trio’s “Whistling Gypsy,” which the former congressman listens to on his iPod while tooling around on his motorcycle.
Ullman met his future wife, Kris Ullman, while whistling at a party. When he applied to be the chief spokesman for then-SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt, he was called into the boss’s office and informed that the competition for the job was down to him and one other applicant. Levitt told him to whistle something.
“Levitt has these piercing blue eyes,” Ullman recalls. “I started thinking, ‘Is this a test? Am I supposed to reject it? Is it too weird?’ ”
Ullman, though, had done his homework. He knew Levitt was a big opera fan. He decided to go for it, whistling a stirring rendition of the aria, “Vesti la giubba” from “Pagliacci.”
“He was so good, I gave him the job,” Levitt recalled in an interview. “He is the best-natured person I know. He’s a lifelong Republican, and I’ve been a lifelong Democrat. But I respect him as much as anyone I know.” (Ullman left the Republican Party and became an independent because of the GOP’s nomination of Donald Trump for president.)
For all his success at the upper realms of American politics, Ullman had never met George W. Bush until 2001. By then, Ullman had moved on to the Office and Management and Budget. His boss, Mitch Daniels, pulled him into the Oval Office one day. Bush was sitting with his feet on his desk, Ullman recalls, an unlit cigar in his hand.
“He runs up to me. ‘Do you need some water? Do you sit? Do you stand?’ ” Ullman says. “He was totally into it.”
Ullman started whistling. And whistling. And whistling. Bush kept asking him to do just one more. As he went through song after song, Vice President Richard B. Cheney and future attorney general Alberto Gonzales wandered in. He thought they were there for a meeting. They weren’t. They were there for the show.
Ullman breaks into a grin as he tells the story. The grin is his default expression.
A few moments later, he says, “I can whistle with my mouth closed! I can show you.”
And he does. Every note, low and high, is crisp and clear.
It sounds like magic.