Wilbur D. Mills

wilburWilbur Daigh Mills (1909-1992) – Wilbur Mills was born in Kensett, AR (population 1444) in 1909.  He was the eldest of three children.  His father, Ardra, was a businessman who operated a general store, a cotton gin and the Bank of Kensett.  Wilbur attended public school in nearby Searcy and graduated from Hendrix College in 1930.  In his senior yearbook, it was said of Mills.

High above the common rabble Wilbur towers, undisturbed by life’s ups and downs.  Something fine within him prompts his gay outlook on life.  His splendid grades are indicative of much ‘gray matter’.  Wilbur walks life’s straight paths and is a boon companion for anyone who is ‘down and out’…” 

Mills left Arkansas to attend Harvard Law School.  While many have credited him with a law degree and he was later admitted to the Arkansas bar, he, in fact, returned to Kensett in 1933 without completing his law degree.  In 1934, Mills began his political career by challenging long time incumbent, Foster White, in the race for White County Judge.  When he first entered the contest, Mills’ own father let him know he planned to vote for White.  Utilizing the slogan “Give a young man a chance” and accusing White of corruption and nepotism, Mills eventually won over his father and a majority of White County voters.  He won the election 2457-2100.  Following the death of Senator Joe Robinson, a seat open up in the Arkansas congressional delegation and Wilbur Mills was elected to represent the 2nd district in 1938.  In 1942, he took his place on the Ways and Means Committee, a post he would hold until his retirement in 1977.       

Wilbur Cohen, Assistant Secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, once said of Mills, “[h]e comes from a little town of 2500, which is a small, rural town, but he nevertheless is a Harvard Law School graduate who has got an incisive mind.”[1]  In order to understand Mills, Cohen asserted, one must understand the tensions presented by living in both of those worlds.  During the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s those worlds collided over the issue of civil rights and Mills found himself in the unenviable position of trying to satisfy his constituents, the Governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, and trying to maintain his credibility in the national Democratic Party.  Moreover, redistricting after the 1960 census reduced Arkansas’ congressional representation from 6 to 4.  Mills was placed in the same district as arch segregationist, Dale Alford.  Though his personal opinion about desegregation is difficult to determine, Mills consistently voted against civil rights legislation.  He also signed the Southern Manifesto which opposed the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954).  Many have suggested that his position on civil rights prevented him from becoming Speaker of the House following Sam Rayburn’s death in 1961.

In 1958, Wilbur Mills became the youngest man to serve as Chairman of the House’s most distinguished committee.  Mills’ leadership of the Ways and Means Committee is legendary, not only because of his remarkable ability to master facts and information; he was known to quote long passages from the tax code from memory.  Mills’ leadership of Ways and Means was notable for his ability to coax a highly partisan group to work together in the spirit of collegiality. 

mills-lbjBeginning in the early 1950s, national health insurance for the elderly became a serious topic of conversation.  Some argued it was a natural extension of social security.  The legislative debates were complex, divisive and Wilbur Mills and the Ways and Means Committee were at the center of the storm.  Mills believed, since his days as Judge in White County, that government entities had a responsibility to assist the less fortunate.  He initiated an early and limited form of medicaid in Arkansas during the Depression by making public funds available to the needy.  In 1960, Mills was instrumental in passing the Kerr-Mills Act, an early version of Medicaid, which set aside federal funds for the states to use for medical care for the needy.  It was never very successful since state governments were reluctant to develop legislation that would allow them to utilize the federal funds.

By the mid-1960s with a Democratic president and Democrats firmly in control of Congress, the Ways and Means Committee conducted hearings on three different healthcare proposals.  Instead of taking a position on any of the three bills, Mills proposed an alternative, the Mills’ bill, which combined aspects of all three proposals.  It contained three sections.  Part A provided hospitalization insurance for the elderly (Medicare).  Part B provided optional insurance that would cover physicians’ services and Part C extended medical insurance to the poor (Medicaid).  The House passed the bill 313-115; the Senate did likewise and the Mills’ bill in large part created Medicare and Medicaid.

Building on Mills’ reputation as a bipartisan policy expert, Representative James Burke (D-MA) organized the “Draft Mills for President” movement.  At first Mills appeared to be a reluctant draftee, though he pledged to work hard if nominated by his party.  In February of 1972, he announced his candidacy for President of the United States.  Democrats hoped Mills could capture the votes of the business community in addition to the traditional Democratic strongholds.  However, Mills’ candidacy never really took off.  In the New Hampshire primary, he received a paltry 4.8 percent of the vote.  After receiving only 3.6 percent of the vote in Massachusetts, he promptly withdrew from the race.

Mills’ distinguished career came to an abrupt and unfortunate end in the early 1970s, when he was besieged by personal scandal.  While working on a plan for national health insurance, Mills’ extramarital affair with former striper, Annabel Battistella, became public knowledge.  He was stopped by the police; she jumped out of the car and into the Tidal Basin.  Though Mills initially denied a romantic relationship, Battistella admitted the two had been involved for two years.  Moreover, it gradually became clear that Mills had a serious drinking problem.  In 1974, Speaker of the House, Carl Albert (D-OK), asked Mills to resign as Chair of the Ways and Means Committee.   Mills announced in 1976 that he would not seek re-election. 

In a career that spanned five decades, Wilbur Mills had an enormous impact on social and economic policy, as well as the American political process.  A southern, fiscal conservative who ushered in the modern welfare state, Mills came to accept a large role for the federal government in both social policy and civil rights.  He invited scholars, lawyers and other experts into the policymaking process and in his darkest hour brought media attention to focus on the personal lives of politicians, rather than on their work.


[1] Again while it is certainly true that Mills attended Harvard Law School , he did not graduate.