June 21, 2018
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Argentine Firecracker revisited

By Kent Ward

So yet another nationally prominent politician has become ensnared in a sordid sex scandal, you say? Well, ho hum. What else is new?

Many viewers over the age of 50 may have been reminded of the spectacular 1974 flameout of Arkansas Democratic Congressman Wilbur Mills and stripper Fanne Foxe — aka the “Argentine Firecracker” — as they watched disgraced Republican Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina kiss his political future goodbye at a televised news conference Wednesday.

Sanford, frequently mentioned as a possible presidential candidate in 2012, called the press conference to explain his mysterious weeklong absence from the governor’s mansion, supposedly during which no one knew his whereabouts.

Turns out the governor had not been hiking the Appalachian Trail, as aides had told reporters. Not unless the trail had been extended to South America while no one was paying attention. Rather, he had covertly flown off to Argentina, without formally transferring power to his lieutenant governor, for a tryst with a 43-year old divorced mother of two he had known for eight years.

“I’ve been unfaithful to my wife,” Sanford told reporters, expounding at length on moral absolutes, God’s law and following the dictates of one’s heart before he actually got down to specifics. He said he had “spent the past five days crying in Argentina.”

Fans of Broadway shows likely caught the oblique reference to the 1978 hit musical “Evita,” in which the character playing the role of Argentina’s former first lady Eva Peron sings “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina,” a selection long on themes of regret and defiance.

The consensus on the television talk shows seemed to be that there may not be much crying, either in Argentina or by his political enemies back home, should Sanford’s once-promising political career be over because of the affair.

As I watched the press conference I half expected the governor’s handlers to get out the hook and haul the man off stage by his neck. There’s something to be said for making a sincere public apology after taking such a pratfall. But there also is something to be said for ending the apology before your audience dozes off. If Sanford’s skittish aides hadn’t physically intervened to end the news conference it might be going yet.

As for the well-publicized scandal involving Wilbur Mills and the Argentine Firecracker three decades ago, it was no less bizarre than Sanford’s intercontinental lashup with his Argentine lover, although it didn’t require the 65-year-old Mills to make a clandestine trip to Buenos Aires to embarrass himself and the United States Congress. He accomplished that rather well without straying far from his Washington turf, saving taxpayers some money in the process.

Mills was chairman of the prestigious House Ways and Means Committee when he and the Firecracker — real name Annabelle Battistella — had their fling. But he would not be for much longer. After the D.C. police pulled Mills and his party of revelers over in a routine 2 a.m. traffic stop near the Tidal Basin, the Firecracker tried to flee the scene by jumping into the Potomac River estuary and the jig soon became up. That splash heard around the world and a subsequent incident involving the two at a Boston nightclub where she was performing resulted in Mills being stripped of his committee chairmanship.

One of the most influential men in Washington, Mills, like Sanford, had once been considered a potential contender for his party’s presidential nomination. Although he was re-elected to Congress just a month after the Tidal Basin incident, he did not seek re-election in 1976. His long political career was over.

The Firecracker, skillfully exploiting her allotted 15 minutes of fame, changed her stage name to “The Tidal Basin Bombshell” and later collaborated on a book about the couple’s adventures before returning to Argentina.

In its Dec. 16, 1974 issue, Time magazine wrote of the Mills-Foxe affair, “What began as delicious Washington gossip has become a personal and professional tragedy in which no one in the Capital can any longer find pleasurable titillation.”

Thirty-five years later, similar words can be written about Sanford’s self-inflicted fall from grace.

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers may reach him by e-mail at olddawg@bangordailynews.net.

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