When They Were Around, the Ayes Had It

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In the annals of Congressional history, Representative Wilbur D. Mills of Arkansas is remembered for the ignominious end to his long legislative career: a public display of inebriation during a dalliance with a stripper named Fanne Fox.

Before that, he helped create Medicare.

Until his downfall in the 1970s, Mr. Mills, a Democrat, was called the most powerful man in Washington — with good reason. For 18 years, longer than any other lawmaker, he ran the House Ways and Means Committee, using his perch to shape not only Medicare but Medicaid and Social Security as well. (And there were tax cuts, too.)

“He reflects a timeless quality,” said Julian E. Zelizer, a Princeton historian and Mills biographer, “and that is the power of a legislator who can deliver backroom deals, who can go behind closed doors and find an area where the divisiveness of the country doesn’t have to kill legislation.”

Last week, Washington reeled from the news that another lawmaker who has that timeless quality (and who has had his own personal foibles), Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, is suffering a particularly aggressive form of brain cancer. As the Capitol absorbed the idea of a future without “the lion of the Senate” — Mr. Kennedy, 76, has been here so long that this is difficult to imagine — a handful of history’s other legislative one-man shows come to mind.

Historians say Mr. Kennedy, who has helped shape just about every major health, education and civil rights bill that has passed in his 46 years in the Senate, will very likely go down as one of the chamber’s greats, up there with Henry Clay and Daniel Webster and John Calhoun. But there are many routes to fame and power in Congress, and not all have to do with passing legislation.

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