Wilbur The Boy Wonder


"Wilbur The Boy Wonder"

White County Historical Society Chronicles

The Beginning of a Long Congressional Career

Wilbur MillsWhen "boy wonder" Wilbur Mills of Kensett was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1938, he was the youngest Congressman ever from Arkansas and the second youngest in Washington at that time.

At age 29, Mills was so youthful in appearance that he was mistaken as a page by Congressman Will Whittington, a senior member who was chairman of the Flood Control Committee. He saw Mills pass him one day as he made his way down the aisle. He stopped Mills and said, "Boy, get me a copy of the billing report." Mills dutifully went to where it was kept and got him a copy and brought it back to him.

"He thanked me," Mills recalled years later. "I didn’t think anything more about it. However, about three or four months later he discovered that I was a member of Congress and apologized. I told him not to, I thought I was just doing what newcomers did."

That anecdote from Mills’ early political career is included in a comprehensive article on the freshman Congressman published in the White County Historical Society’s 1999 White County Heritage history. It was written by Kay Goss, widow of Mills’ long-time administrative assistant, Gene Goss. She is now associate director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Washington, D.C. Coinciding with the release of the ’99 Heritage to its members, the Society presented a film on Mills, "The Man From Kensett," at its meeting February 22 at the White County Courthouse. The meeting was attended by Mills’ nephew, Judge Bill Mills, and is brother Roger and wife.

The 1998 Heritage contained an article by Goss describing Mills’ first political campaign, an upset victory to become White County Judge. Her followup article reveals the advice he received from a grandfather who was a merchant living at Plainview: "I know you are going to want to go to Congress. So, you’ll run into a lot of Republicans but you’ll never see a Republican, no matter how wonderful, who is as good as the worst Democrat."

On June 15, 1938, Mills officially began the first of 18 campaigns for Congress, 13 of which he won without opposition. A few weeks later in Newport, Roy Richardson opened his second and last campaign for Congress. Richardson was an accomplished speaker, capable of artful political rhetoric and winner of a national oratorical contest in Philadelphia. Likewise, Mills was a fine speaker, capable of moving political oratory and brilliant discussion of public policy, as well as an experienced and successful debater.

Mills was the first candidate to use a loud speaker in his Congressional District. He had a steel contraption built for him to hold the microphone, so he could have his hands free for gesturing and he could turn from side to side to achieve eye contact with all in attendance.

Mills spent a total of $17,000 in this race, all provided by his father, who did not want him to be beholden to any one.

The young county judge made more than 50 forceful speeches during the vigorous campaign across the 12-county district, writes Goss, "conveying a sense of authority, a logical sequence of ideas as a basis for acceptance, and a powerful injection of strong persuasion in simple language. The impact of television and the electronic media have caused the decline of speechmaking an entertainment form. It was not unusual for Mills to attract thousands even in rural areas, even though he put together his own speaking engagements rather than go to ready-made crowds at fairs and other public events."

Mills challenged his hometown by saying that he would not accept the position in Congress unless he carried Kensett unanimously. The final tally was 23,415 votes for Mills and 18,141 for Richardson. White County supported its favorite son by more than a five-to-one margin and Kensett cast a unanimous vote of 246 for Mills, with none for Richardson. For the first and only time in the election history of White County, an opposed Congressional candidate carried every precinct.

Shortly after Richardson’s resounding defeat, he threw a huge fish fry in his home county of Lawrence for the new Congressman-elect at which some 4,000 people attended. Richardson spoke to the crowd of people who had supported him, as their local favorite son, and told them that if he had to be defeated for Congress, he preferred that it be by Wilbur Mills and that he wanted them to support Mills just as they had him.

Senator John E. Miller took Mills to Washington for an early visit, soon after his election, so he could get his office assignment and meet whomever he would like to see. Mills asked to see President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Vice President John Nance Garner.

"Well, young man, what did you want to see me about," Garner asked Mills. "I came here to see you, Mr. Garner," Mills replied, "because I want to find out what I have to do to stay here as long as you have." He didn’t take all of Garner’s advice – like destroying every copy of every speech he would make on the floor, saying "No matter how good the speech is when you make it, ten years from now, it’s not that good." But he did follow some of Garner’s instructions, such as spending as much time as possible staying in touch, by phone, letter and personal visits with people in his home district, taking good care of casework, answering correspondence immediately, and spending as much time as possible in his district.

When Miller introduced him to President Roosevelt, Mills recalled years later, FDR stated, "Well, John, we are not only electing them younger but also better looking."

Three years after Christmas, 1938, Mills left Arkansas for Washington, where he would maintain a home for more than 53 years.