My Favorite DC Scandal: The Case of the Congressman and the Argentine Firecracker
There’s nothing like a good DC scandal—the crashing together of high politics and base motives, the cover-up, the slow drip of revelations. In my new thriller, Hour of the Assassin, one such secret drives the plot as a former Secret Service agent, framed for a high-profile murder, races to unravel who set him up and why.
While writing the book, I reacquainted myself with some of the most notorious political sagas. There’s Teapot Dome and Iran-Contra, and All the King’s Men with its beautiful literary rendering of Huey Long’s rise, and, because Louisiana is hard to top in corruption, Governor Edwin Edwards notorious proclamation, after beating countless graft cases, that the only way he could lose an upcoming election was “if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy.”
One of the curious aspects of writing political fiction is that you often have to tone down the shabbiness or downright comic incompetence of real-world scandals in order to have the kind of grand intrigue that sustains a thriller and sets up a truly diabolical villain, a worthwhile match for your hero. So Hour of the Assassin sticks to what I love in a thriller— murder and blackmail, money and politics, souls and nations at stake, all set in the heart of the cutthroat presidential primary. But when it comes to real-life scandals, my favorite is a much lighter romp: the case of the Congressman and the Argentine Firecracker.
At two a.m. on an early October morning in 1974, a Lincoln Continental with Arkansas plates sped past the monuments on the National Mall with its headlights off.
The Park Police pulled it over, and from its doors spilled a drunken Southern congressman who had been cavorting inside with three women. Meet Wilbur Mills, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, which had made him one of the most powerful men in Washington for decades. One of his companions, later revealed to be Fanne Fox, a stripper known as the Argentine Firecracker, ran from the car and jumped into The Tidal Basin. The police pulled her out, and helped the Congressman and all involved—another other occupant of the car was a dancer known as the Vegas Vixen—escape the scene.
The whole event went down as an attempted suicide, with no names listed, in the police reports. But a sharp-eyed television cameraman, who witnessed the response, later undid the cover up.
Congressman Mills came up with a convoluted explanation for what really happened that night—something about the Argentine Firecracker not feeling well and him gallantly trying to get her home—and managed to survive politically. He kept his chairmanship and won reelection a month later.
All might have been well, but the married Mills had fallen for Foxe, and moved her into an apartment in his building.
Foxe, cashing in on the publicity and now going by the name of the Tidal Basin Bombshell, started a new burlesque tour, commanding higher fees, and one night brought the Ways and Means Committee Chair on stage during one of her performances and smooched him.
That was too much. Mills lost his chairmanship and retired from Congress. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous, recovered, and spent his last days warning against the dangers of alcohol.
There are more consequential scandals, of course, but for sheer outrageousness and color, Wilbur Mills’ late-night drive will always be my favorite.