Late on the night of Nov. 1, 1986, Tom McMillen looked for all the world like a loser. In just three days the voters of Maryland's Fourth District would send either McMillen, the Democrat, or Robert R. Neall, the Republican, to Congress, and the smart money was on Neall. Neall had the endorsements of both the Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post, and now McMillen was reading a Sun poll that showed the Republican ahead by nine points. McMillen"s recognition factor was far higher than Neall's, but the impression that McMillen was, as his opponent suggested, a dilettantish carpetbagger had evidently stuck.
"Just a week earlier three polls had me eight points up—what had I done wrong?" McMillen wondered. "More to the point, what can I do now? Run around the neighborhood with my clothes off? Go on TV? Too late for that."
So McMillen did what he always did when his team was down and time was running out. He dug in and started throwing elbows.
"The election was really an analogy for my sports background," says McMillen now. "How many basketball games did I think we had won and saw taken away from us at the last moment? That's what the election seemed to be coming down to.
February 23, 1987
"That's why on election day I was at the polls at seven in the morning shaking hands. And on election night I stood at a poll in primarily Republican Prince George's County and shook hands until it closed. See, I looked at it like an NBA two-fer, like beating a team in your own division. Not only is that a win for you, but it's a loss for them. Every time I changed a Republican's mind, I was getting a two-fer."
When many observers look at McMillen, they see a guy who started life 50 meters up the track in a 100-meter dash. He has both looks and brains wrapped in a 6'11" package. But that's too simple.
"What people don't realize about me," he says, "is that I've had to fight and scrap for everything I've ever gotten."
As a youth he overcame a serious bone problem in his legs through a strenuous exercise program. At the University of Maryland he became a dominant center because of a feathery jump shot that he perfected with hours of practice. He earned a Rhodes scholarship by pounding the books and campaigning ceaselessly for the honor. He stayed around the NBA for 11 seasons with four teams, the last being the Washington Bullets in 1985-86, because he learned to play defense, pass, rebound and flail away under the basket, like an Ichabod Crane in sneakers. If McMillen is a golden boy, then he's a golden boy with permanent sweat stains on his jersey.
The vote was close all evening. Neall was projected as an early winner on TV, and some of McMillen's West Coast friends called with condolences. An early edition of the Sun also projected Neall as the victor. The Chicago Bulls even called to see if McMillen was available to play now that he wouldn't be assuming elective office.
Finally, in an election that wasn't state-certified until Dec. 2, McMillen was declared the winner by 428 votes. More than 130,000 people went to the polls, so a 428-vote margin is roughly comparable to a one-point victory in sextuple overtime. Nevertheless. 34-year-old Charles Thomas McMillen, all 83 inches of him, was going to Congress.
About two dozen of the 27 freshmen Democratic representatives are drifting in for an unappetizing breakfast in Room B 369 of the Rayburn House Office Building. It's Jan. 21 and they have been on the job for about two weeks. McMillen is among the last arrivals, having come from a 7 a.m. workout in the House gym.
Some of the congressmen are tall, though none as tall as McMillen. Some are gray, though none as prematurely gray as McMillen. Some are strikingly handsome, though none as handsome as McMillen. A clerk whispers to a bystander: "These the new congressmen, right? I saw that tall guy with the gray hair who used to play basketball. Can't miss him. And then there's the new Kennedy. It's Ted, right?"
No, it's Joe. He's another one you can't miss. Joe Kennedy and Tom McMillen. Can't miss them. One carries a weighty legacy on his back, the other an aura about his whole being. If McMillen has one natural advantage, it's that he looks important. Of all the members of the Jock Caucus, McMillen is the one who will get the second, third and fourth glance. In politics, that can't hurt.
McMillen's long strides eat up the distance between the Rayburn Building and his office on the fifth floor of the adjoining Longworth House Office Building. Almost as soon as people turn around and open their mouths' to say, "Hey, aren't you...?" McMillen is by them. One resourceful custodian steps in his path to take the charge. "Can you still hit the jumper?" he asks. McMillen smiles and says, "Haven't tried lately."
Actually, he has. McMillen recently played in his first pickup basketball game in the House gym, and he plans to play as often as possible. The standing joke around Congress is that Bill Bradley never joined in these games until his tax reform bill was in trouble. "Then he came down and gave it up a few times," said McMillen.
For the most part, though, McMillen seems determined to put basketball behind him. Don't even bother to engage him in conversation about the NBA because he hasn't kept up. He has attended only a few Bullets games this season. His red, white and blue Bullet jersey (No. 54) is displayed in a glass case on his office wall, but, he insists, "it's coming down." A ball inscribed with the date on which McMillen scored his 5,000th NBA point (Dec. 6, 1984) rests on a shelf. He finished with 5,914 points, some 30,000 fewer than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has so far.
Because of his height, it's going to be a long time before people stop viewing McMillen as an ex-jock. As he heads for a House Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs Committee meeting, he encounters Alan Simpson, a Republican senator from Wyoming. The 6'6" Simpson is used to standing tall in Congress, but McMillen towers over him. Need it be said that McMillen is the tallest lawmaker in U.S. history?
McMillen takes his seat in the committee meeting next to Joe Kennedy. "Anyone who is familiar with professional basketball will recognize our next new member," intones committee chairman Fernand J. St Germain of Rhode Island as he introduces McMillen. Then St Germain turns his attention to Kennedy. "If there is anyone about whom it can truly be said that he needs no introduction...," he begins. McMillen and Kennedy. You can't miss them.
McMillen's staff is convinced, however, that McMillen is the leader of the freshman class. "Tom is the thoroughbred,' " says Jonathan P. Yates, his legislative director. That opinion is obviously biased, but a few days of tailing McMillen around Washington does nothing to contradict it. He has the recognition factor of. say, a four-term senator. And though he's an ex-jock, the Rhodes scholarship has given him intellectual credibility, just as it did for Bradley. Moreover, the pooh-bahs in the Democratic Party seem to be rooting for McMillen, no doubt because of his attractiveness as a high-profile candidate. New representatives must lobby the veterans for committee appointments, but McMillen got both of those he sought (the banking post and another on Science, Space and Technology). That's rare for a rookie.
As McMillen heads out the door of the Rayburn Building, bound for the inauguration of Maryland Governor William Donald Schaefer in Annapolis, he encounters John Glenn, the senator from Ohio. "Hey, kid, how you doing?" says Glenn. "Haven't seen you since the election. Everything all right?" McMillen stops to chat with Glenn. The senator, figuring that McMillen had the right stuff, had campaigned for him in Maryland.
McMillen loves his job but despairs over his impossible schedule. For instance, he had to leave the banking committee meeting early to attend the gubernatorial inauguration, which he would have to leave early to make a House roll-call vote, which would interrupt two meetings in his office, which would make him late for a 6 p.m. state Democratic function, which he would leave early to make an 8 p.m. reception for Democratic mayors at the Mayflower Hotel. It would be midnight before McMillen could finally flop into bed at his home in Crofton, an upscale Maryland bedroom community in the heart of the so-called Washington-Baltimore-Annapolis Golden Triangle.
"I've been juggling three or four things for the last few years," McMillen says, "but now I'm juggling all the elements of one job. It's hard to see one thing through to completion. Fortunately, I've never had a problem with energy. It's probably my strong point. Being single really helps, too. My social life is malleable."
Says Jerry Grant, McMillen's top aide: "Tom's favorite saying is, 'Don't say it can't be done.' For the next two years he will try to do everything." That's what you do when your mandate is only 428 votes.
At the Schaefer inauguration, McMillen makes his way through a throng of spectators. Around the halls of Congress, he carries a booklet containing the name and face of every legislator, but here in Maryland he's on his own. "Tom, glad you made it," says Joseph Curran, the state attorney general. A dozen people stop to gawk at McMillen. Curran may as well be invisible.
Inside the state capitol building, McMillen warmly greets Charlie St. Clair, a former state commander of the American Legion. "The veterans supported Tom completely," St. Clair says later. "You might say we helped his carcass get in there."
Why not the carcass of Neall, the handpicked candidate of seven-term incumbent Marjorie Holt and a seemingly natural choice for an organization with a conservative image?
Well, St. Clair explains, although McMillen is considered a classic Kennedy liberal in some circles, his support base is by no means stereotypical. He calls himself a "new-breed Democrat," which is shorthand for someone who adheres to the basic principles of the Great Society but who also pays proper homage to national defense and fiscal responsibility.
"It's really a throwback to Jack Kennedy." McMillen says later. "Jack Kennedy was not an antidefense Democrat. Jack Kennedy was not afraid to exert military force. He just preferred diplomacy first. I believe in a strong defense. But I don't think they [the Republicans] have had a coherent defense strategy."
On matters of national defense, McMillen follows the line of Georgia Senator Sam Nunn, a respected conservative Democrat. On matters fiscal, McMillen's mentor is Bradley, whom he admires unabashedly. They were New York Knick teammates in 1976-77 (McMillen's second season, Bradley's 10th and last), and the senator had been McMillen's model scholar-athlete for many years before that. When McMillen arrived late for a photo session of the Jock Caucus a few weeks ago, Bradley, claiming Red Holtzman privileges, promptly fined him $40, and McMillen obediently handed the money over to Mo Udall, the caucus treasurer.
His respect for Bradley notwithstanding, McMillen can claim his own credentials as a new-breed Democrat. He's a millionaire from several business ventures. He still owns a major block of stock in PagePlus, a paging-communications firm in Columbia, Md. True, he spent his time "running around in short pants," as Neall charged, but, as McMillen told voters over and over during the campaign, he also "knows how to meet a payroll and balance a budget."
As an ex-jock, businessman and new-breed Democrat, McMillen can barely stop uttering this year's Washington buzzword—"competitiveness." He's one of 120 members of the bipartisan Congressional Competitiveness Caucus, which was formed to address American industry's inability to compete effectively in world markets.
"I still recall when everyone made fun of Japanese radios, and now you can't even buy an American-made radio," says McMillen as he heads back to Washington from Annapolis with Grant at the wheel. "We're in kind of the same posture the Japanese were in when I was growing up. We have to say: 'I'm tired of people buying Japanese radios and West German cars.' Out of curiosity, I went through my parking lot the other night and only one-quarter of the cars were American. I'm appalled by that."
But McMillen doesn't sound appalled. If there's a quality he seems to lack, it's passion. Still, he has already staked out his congressional territory—economics, technology, finance—and, by all accounts, he will do an excellent job working that ground. He's a voracious reader, and the chances of someone out-backgrounding him on an issue are remote. After all, this is a man to whom something called the "non-bank bank loophole" is at least as clear as the NBA's illegal defense guidelines.
Back in Washington, McMillen hits the ground running. He has five minutes to make a vote in the House. A man rolls down his car window and shouts at him: "Hey, Mack-Millen, you're playing better than ever." The congressman waves his thanks.
"Guess he thinks I'm still in the NBA." McMillen says, shaking his head.
A blizzard all but shuts down D.C. the next morning, but McMillen is still busy, hopscotching from a banking committee meeting to a House vote to a luncheon meeting of the Competitiveness Caucus. The luncheon begins 35 minutes late, which may be indicative of why it's necessary to hold such a meeting in the first place.
"Being a freshman congressman is a little like being an NBA rookie," says McMillen. Figuratively, he's still carrying the basketballs and the projector. Freshmen get the last pick of offices in the Longworth and Ray-burn office buildings, for instance. McMillen didn't do too badly, choosing ninth out of his class of 49, but Kennedy drew 45th and got a glorified broom closet along a drab corridor known as Death Row.
As one of the new kids in town, McMillen is feeling his way, finding out when he should throw an elbow and when he should back off. He depends heavily on Grant, an experienced behind-the-scenes man. and Yates, who at 27 seems to have been born and nurtured on the Hill. When McMillen has to bolt early from the drier-than-dust banking hearing. Yates removes McMillen's name-plate. "That's so the Republican National Committee won't take a picture of an absent Tom McMillen," he says.
En route to vote for the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee—"It's a big disadvantage being six-eleven when they're looking around for the undecideds," McMillen tells a fellow representative later—he sweeps past a meeting on Soviet Jewry. With the instinct of a born politician, he ducks in, shakes a few hands and ducks out before it starts.
The snow finally shuts down all federal business, and McMillen returns to his office. Two of his constituents, marchers from that day's antiabortion demonstration, are waiting for McMillen, who opposes Federal funding for abortions. He instructs Sarah Geithner, a legislative assistant, to sit down with them and promises to return in 15 minutes. But they leave early and that bugs him. "Now they'll think I didn't want to talk to them," he says to Geithner. "You get their names? Good. Write them a follow-up letter and thank them for coming in."
McMillen's desk is neat and categorized, like his mind. He's a good boss, say his staff members, but a bit of a grind. On virtually everything they write for him he scribbles comments like "simplify the language" or "watch the grammar." He once mentioned to Yates, in an offhand tone that wasn't so offhand, that his desk was kind of messy. "He was telling me he wanted me to clean it up," Yates says.
Settled behind his own desk for the first time in two days. McMillen runs an electric shaver over his face while he talks about President Ronald Reagan. "I admire the guy in a lot of respects, but, ideologically, we have differences," he says. "I guess it comes down to the way we view the country—the environment, education, a lot of things. I guess I have more of a philosophy of inclusivity, a belief that all Americans belong under the umbrella. That doesn't mean the federal umbrella. It means that all Americans should have the opportunity to get an education, to be free from health situations that may bankrupt them and to reach their potential. I'm not so sure that the President agrees with that. I'm sure he agrees with it philosophically, but there's a certain status quo to his thinking."
Again McMillen speaks smoothly and reasonably, but also dispassionately. He always looks before he leaps, and considering his bolted-to-the-floor NBA career, some would say he never leaps at all. He sounds believable and looks terrific. One can almost sense the Democratic leadership nodding appreciatively in the background.
It's too early to predict exactly where McMillen is going. But his progress through the power corridors of Washington, where he sometimes must stoop to conquer, will be well-chronicled. After all, you can't miss him.