The Sex Scandal that Reshaped Congress — and the Warnings for TodayRoundup
tags: scandal, Wilbur Mills, Fanne Fox
Julian Zelizer is a political historian at Princeton University. He is author of Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party.
Wilbur Mills was one of the most influential members of Congress in the 20th century. Yet, almost five decades after leaving office, he may be best known for getting caught at Washington’s Tidal Basin with Fanne Foxe, the “Argentine Firecracker.” Foxe, whose real name was Annabel Battistella, died on Feb. 10 at age 84 and it was her profession that made the story so sensational: She was a stripper.
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.”
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