Congressman Wilbur D. Mills’s Stripper Affair Leads to His Downfall Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

A U.S. representative from Arkansas and powerful House committee leader, Wilbur D. Mills was an alcoholic who reportedly was having an extramarital affair with stripper Fanne Foxe. Foxe was found by police in the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C., having either fallen or jumped in the water following a traffic stop of Mills’s car. Mills’s activities became a public scandal and led to the end of his government career.

Summary of Event

Wilbur D. Mills, who was first elected to the U.S. Congress in 1938, was only twenty-nine years old and the second-youngest member of Congress in U.S. history when he took office. He eventurally became one of the most powerful leaders in the House of Representatives as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. At one point he was rumored to be under consideration for an appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. He was the nation’s most respected fiscal authority and was a candidate for president in 1972 but was defeated in the primaries by McGovern, George George McGovern. Had McGovern defeated Richard Nixon in the November general election, Mills likely would have become the secretary of the Treasury Department. [kw]Mills’s Stripper Affair Leads to His Downfall, Congressman Wilbur D. (Oct. 7, 1974) Mills, Wilbur D. Foxe, Fanne Tidal Basin incident Congress, U.S.;Wilbur D. Mills[Mills] Mills, Wilbur D. Foxe, Fanne Tidal Basin incident Congress, U.S.;Wilbur D. Mills[Mills] [g]United States;Oct. 7, 1974: Congressman Wilbur D. Mills’s Stripper Affair Leads to His Downfall[01510] [c]Government;Oct. 7, 1974: Congressman Wilbur D. Mills’s Stripper Affair Leads to His Downfall[01510] [c]Politics;Oct. 7, 1974: Congressman Wilbur D. Mills’s Stripper Affair Leads to His Downfall[01510] [c]Sex;Oct. 7, 1974: Congressman Wilbur D. Mills’s Stripper Affair Leads to His Downfall[01510] [c]Public morals;Oct. 7, 1974: Congressman Wilbur D. Mills’s Stripper Affair Leads to His Downfall[01510]

Wilbur D. Mills.

(Library of Congress)

Within two years of his run for the presidency, the respected Mills was a much maligned alcoholic who was widely assumed to have been cheating on his wife. He became a national laughingstock after he met Fanne Foxe, a striptease dancer who had come to the United States from Argentina.

At 2:00 a.m. on October 7, 1974, the U.S. Park Police in Washington, D.C., stopped a car in which Mills and three women were riding. The car was stopped because it was traveling at an unreasonable speed and it did not have its headlights on. In an apparent attempt to protect the intoxicated Mills from being discovered by police, Foxe leaped from the car, ran, and ended up in the water in the adjacent Tidal Basin. Foxe, also intoxicated, was pulled out of the water by police and taken to a nearby hospital for treatment.

Initially, Mills denied news reports that he had been in the car. However, he admitted guilt in an October 10 article in Washington Post The Washington Post after finding out that a television news crew filmed part of the incident. Ten days later, Mills finally told voters that he had done “something that he shouldn’t have done.” He attributed his earlier denials to miscommunication with his staff. In early December, he appeared on stage with Foxe to stem the innuendos about their relationship; they claimed to be just “very close friends.” He told the press that had he been having a clandestine relationship, he would not have been so careless. He also claimed in a newspaper interview that Foxe was a friend of his wife. Six months later, he blamed the entire incident on a combination of pain pills (for a sore back) and alcohol.

As chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Mills was extremely influential. The committee met in secrecy. In addition to dealing with bills on taxation and trade, it also determined who served on congressional committees. The general view among his colleagues in Congress was that Mills was a despot who ruled Congress by giving out favors for those who voted as he did and for doling out punishments to those who voted against him. He often could get tax bills passed without amendments. (Floor amendments often turn general tax bills into loopholes for special interest groups. Mills would not give special interest groups an opportunity to get an amendment added to a bill.)

Throughout his job as chairman, Mills never lost a tax bill on the floor of the House. Thus, it seems that Mills used a combination of both the “carrot” and the “stick” in his approach to getting tax bills passed. Following the demise of Mills, tax bills that passed did so because they offered tax benefits to everyone, and not because they represented sound legislation, resulting in a complex mass of tax laws and a system lacking internal stability.

Impact

Mills was reelected to Congress less than one month after his relationship with Fanny Foxe became public knowledge. He was fortunate that 1974 was a good year for Democrats, and he won with nearly 60 percent of the vote. About a month after the 1974 election, Mills, again drunk, appeared on stage at a Boston strip club called the Pilgrim Theater, where Foxe was performing as the Tidal Basin Bombshell. Mills’s behavior further embarrassed Congress, leading his peers to urge him to resign from his leadership position. House Speaker Carl Albert assured voters that Mills would not return as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

In January, 1975, a few weeks after the Boston incident with Foxe, Mills stepped down from his position with the committee and acknowledged that he was an alcoholic. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous and checked himself into a hospital to get away from alcohol. He did not seek reelection in 1976. In 1977, he returned to Washington, D.C., as a lobbyist on tax matters.

Another lasting impact of the Foxe scandal was a change in the way congressional committee members are selected. In December, 1974, the Democratic caucus voted to strip the Ways and Means chairman of the power to appoint congressional committee members. The greatest impact of Mills’s downfall, however, was the effect it had on income tax law in the United States. All revenue bills, which include all changes in the tax laws, must originate in the Ways and Means Committee. Mills was known for carefully editing every tax bill so that it meshed with existing tax law. Because of Mills, the Internal Revenue Code Internal Revenue Code was well organized, internally consistent, and stable throughout his eighteen-year tenure as chairman. After he resigned, his successors lacked either the ability or the motivation to carefully monitor the tax laws.

In effect, the downfall of Mills led to a loss of a clear source of order and constraint and opened up the tax agenda to special interest groups. Tax law soon became a hodgepodge of miscellaneous provisions that complicated life for taxpayers and tax preparers. Thus, many believe that today’s tax loopholes and “exceptions to the exceptions” in the Internal Revenue Code can be attributed to the Foxe scandal of 1974. Twenty years later, following the 1994 election, the newly elected chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Republican William Archer of Texas, stated at a press conference that he wanted to conduct the affairs of the committee “as Wilbur Mills did.” For a Republican chairman to make such a statement about a Democratic predecessor simply underscores the impact that Mills had on the Ways and Means Committee and federal tax law. Mills, Wilbur D. Foxe, Fanne Tidal Basin incident Congress, U.S.;Wilbur D. Mills[Mills]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barnes, Fred. “Congressional Despots, Then and Now.” Public Interest, Summer, 1990. This article considers Mills a near-sovereign of a powerful fiefdom. The author attributes a decline in the power of the House Ways and Means Committee to the Fanne Foxe scandal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Battistella, Annabel, with Yvonne Dunleavy. Fanne Foxe. New York: Pinnacle Books, 1975. Foxe’s mass-market autobiography written shortly after the Tidal Basin incident, most likely to capitalize on the publicity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Democrats: Wilbur’s Argentine Firecracker.” Time, October 24, 1974. A newsmagazine article published shortly after the Foxe scandal erupted that covers the story as it unfolded.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Manley, John F. The Politics of Finance: The House Committee on Ways and Means. Boston: Little, Brown, 1970. An entire chapter is devoted to Mills. The author considers Mills one of the “most influential committee chairmen in recent years, if not in history.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zelizer, Julian E. Taxing America: Wilbur D. Mills, Congress, and the State, 1945-1975. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Analyzes the work of Mills and provides insights into the evolution of income taxation, Social Security, and Medicare during Mills’s tenure as committee chairman.

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