Of all the virtues that propel a man or woman to congressional power, patience may well be the most important. Now, with Wilbur Mills’s 16-year reign as chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee at an unseemly end, Al Ullman’s patience will soon be rewarded. A 10-term Democrat from Oregon’s sprawling second district—larger, in itself, than any state east of the Mississippi—Ullman is next in line for the chairmanship. Though House Democrats, moving quickly in the wake of Mills’s indiscretions with stripper Fanne Foxe, have already relieved the committee of some of its disproportionate power, the chairman will still wield broad influence in taxation and Social Security, foreign trade, health insurance, unemployment compensation and welfare.
The 60-year-old Ullman insists he never joined in any plot to oust Mills. He was nonetheless quick to claim the chairmanship in the name of seniority once Mills was discredited, since for him the new post represents the flowering of a long-term ambition. “I’ve been asked to run for the Senate several times, but I’ve never been tempted,” he says. “Once I got on the Ways and Means Committee I was totally consumed in making it my career. On a committee like that, every four years you get the equivalent of a college education.”
It wasn’t merely Ullman’s 1961 appointment to the committee that persuaded him to take stock of his congressional career. That same year Ullman was involved in a serious automobile accident while driving home from a small cattle ranch he owned in Virginia. As a result his left leg had to be amputated below the knee (he now wears an artificial limb). When he returned to Congress he decided to sell the ranch. “I decided I loved being in Congress, and that was my life. I decided I’d better keep my eye on that job.” A grandfather, he is divorced and now lives with his second wife, Audrey, who was his personal secretary and whom he married two years ago.
Once an unswerving liberal whose voting record received 100 percent approval rating from the Americans for Democratic Action in 1961, Ullman scored only 52 percent last year. “I’m still as liberal as I ever was,” insists Ullman. “I think the ADA has changed.” Ullman currently bills himself as a “responsible liberal” who is disappointed with his party’s approach to the nation’s economic malaise. “People keep reaching for easy answers,” he complains, “but we’re not going to muddle our way out of this. There are only hard answers, and the American people will accept them.” Among them, he says, are a tax on gas, a limit on imports and “a lot of things to help low-income people.” Is a depression at hand? “We don’t have to have one,” says Ullman, who waited on tables to work his way through college in the early ’30s, “if we act wisely and soon enough.”