The revelation of her relationship with Mills (D-Ark.) brought him down and opened the door to critical reforms that ended the era when Southern Democratic committee chairmen ruled Capitol Hill along with their Midwestern Republican allies — offering a reminder of the powerful impact that scandals can have on American politics.
On the early morning of Oct. 7, 1974, the U.S. Park Service stopped a speeding Lincoln Continental near the Jefferson Memorial. Battistella bolted from the car and jumped into the freezing Tidal Basin. A fully clothed officer dove into the water to save her. When backup arrived, the officers threw tires into the water to pull them back to the shore.
When the officers walked Battistella back to the car, they — along with a television cameraman named Lawrence Krebs — discovered that Mills was in the car. Indeed, it was his vehicle. To make matters worse, the two had clearly been in a physical fight. Battistella had bruises on her face and Mills, who was clearly intoxicated, had a bloody nose and scratches on his cheeks. (Because the police didn’t file charges, no investigation of the physical altercation occurred.)
As the story broke publicly, media outlets discovered that Battistella, 38, worked as a stripper who performed for $500 a week and who had lived with her husband (until they separated) and their three children. The recent Argentine immigrant had abandoned pre-med studies when she married.
In addition to Battistella’s profession and Mills’s power as a congressman from Arkansas who would serve 18 terms, news of their relationship jarred Washington because of Mills’s reputation. Most features would stress that the chairman — who had married his high school sweetheart, Polly, with whom he had two children — liked to stay home at nights, and he was rumored to sleep with the tax code under his pillow. “I’ve never seen him drink,” Sam Gibbons (D-Fla.) told reporters. House Majority Leader Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) said it was “hard for me to believe that Wilbur would be involved in anything of that nature; maybe he was just the victim of circumstances.”
Taking a page from former vice president Richard Nixon (the Checkers Speech) and Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) (his Chappaquiddick speech), Mills released a formal apology to friends and constituents after three days in seclusion. “Of course I am embarrassed and humiliated by the entire turn of events and I want to apologize for the discomfort my involvement caused all of the well-wishers who have expressed their genuine concern to my family, especially Polly, who is blaming herself for not accompanying us that night even with her broken foot.” Mills denied that his relationship with Battistella was anything more than a friendship.
The apology worked. Mills felt emboldened enough to joke about the incident when campaigning. “Never drink champagne with a foreigner,” was the lesson he said he learned. In November, his Arkansas constituents reelected the congressman with 59 percent of the vote.
The 65-year-old Mills embodied everything young liberal Democrats loathed about Congress: He was one of many conservative Southern Democrats who worked behind closed doors with Republicans to stifle progress on liberal legislation. With the exception of his key role in the passage of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965, Mills had long been part of this conservative coalition. In 1968, he had forced President Lyndon B. Johnson to decide between spending more on guns (Vietnam) or butter (Great Society). Guns won.
Mills had even more power than most of his Southern colleagues — he chaired the House Ways and Means Committee, with jurisdiction over a range of major policies, including taxation, Medicare, Social Security and trade. Mills ruled with an iron fist, prohibiting subcommittees, which may have diluted his power, and doing most of the committee’s business outside of public view. Enhancing Mills’s power further, the committee also made all other committee assignments for House Democrats — leaving every member beholden to Mills.
In 1974, a proposed reorganization of the House endeavored to strip Ways and Means of much of its power. Jurisdiction over some policies would be taken away and subcommittee chairs would gain power.
But Mills wielded his influence, watering down the reform to the point that it didn’t really tame the kings of the hill. Mills met privately with members to warn them about moving forward with reform. “I haven’t heard that kind of language since I got out of school,” Rep. Herman Schneebeli (R-Pa.) told one colleague after his conversation with the chairman.
After his reelection, Mills felt invulnerable. Even the reformers — their ranks bolstered by the “Watergate Baby” freshman class — understood his power. As Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) warned, “If you aim at the King, you had better not miss.”
Then all hell broke loose. On the last Saturday of November, Battistella made her first public appearance since the Tidal Basin incident. Because of her newfound celebrity, the Boston strip club was packed with reporters covering her show.
To Battistella’s consternation, a drunken Mills had come as well. When she finished a 15-minute burlesque dance and spotted him walking out from behind the curtain, Battistella tried to salvage the situation. Dressed in an elaborate, colorful gown, she surprised the crowd by announcing, “Ladies and gentlemen, I have a visitor for you, and he wants to say hello. Mr. Mills, where are you?” Mills, who had allegedly downed almost two bottles of vodka, stumbled in front of the crowd and said, “Here I am!” before rambling into the microphone.
Reporters couldn’t believe their eyes. The lawmaker so feared in Washington was drunk out of his mind, barely making sense and slurring his words. When asked about his future, the chairman responded in defiant fashion. “This won’t ruin me … nothing can.”
The story was front-page news, complete with embarrassing photographs. The Arkansas Gazette called on Mills to resign. Any fear of Mills from his fellow Democrats had also vanished.
The Democratic Caucus happened to be meeting two days later. As members gathered, according to one reporter, a “spirit of reform, even a scent of crusaders zeal, hung in the air.” Although sex made the Mills story scandalous, its political potency stemmed from the vivid illustration of the lack of accountability for senior committee chairs. As columnist Mary Russell wrote, “the Tidal Basin incident made the reforms feasible, and Mills’ actions in Boston … made the vote a certainty.”
Speaker Carl Albert (D-Okla.) called Mills a “sick man” and Democrats successfully pressured him to resign. Democrats also pushed through reforms of the Ways and Means Committee that had previously been impossible, dispersing power through subcommittees and taking away the panel’s power to control committee assignments. Democrats soon enacted other reforms, removing three other senior chairs from their positions, opening up the institution with sunshine reforms and strengthening the ability of party leaders to exert their influence.
Mills would acknowledge he had addictions to alcohol and prescription drugs. “My activities of the past several months were not those of the Wilbur Mills who spent 36 years in Congress,” he said in a public statement. He spent the rest of his life working as a lawyer in Washington and speaking about alcoholism.
Battistella became one of the first modern scandal celebrities. The newly named “Tidal Basin Bombshell,” made upward of $3,500 a week stripping and after retiring, published a tell-all book, “The Stripper and the Congressman” (with Yvonne Dunleavy). Battistella recounted meeting Mills in 1973, culminating in an affair. She explained that fear of losing her citizenship propelled her into the Tidal Basin trying to escape. She was interviewed on television and featured in Playboy magazine. There were even low-budget films and an off-Broadway show. Years later, after moving to Florida, she earned an undergraduate degree and a Master’s in marine science and business administration.
It’s unclear in 2021 what kind of scandal could possibly have the seismic impact of the Mills incident. Decades of far more relevant scandals, and especially the presidency of Donald Trump — marked by outrageous conduct, misdeeds and two impeachments — have left the public numb to the behavior of our leaders and lacking a sense that change is possible. We haven’t had a burst of government reform, as we saw in the reform-minded era of the 1970s. Intense partisanship makes it unlikely that one’s own party will punish them for misdeeds as Democrats did with Mills.
This is profoundly dangerous. The Mills episode revealed that without accountability, politicians can quickly lose any sense of guardrails constraining them. Although the Foxe scandal ultimately centered on Mills’s personal relationships, reckless behavior of people in power profoundly undermines our institutions. Unless fellow politicians are courageous enough to stay stop, many of our leaders never will.