Until last week, Chris Ullman was Washington’s most famous whistleblower.
The four-time international whistling champion, who’s performed with symphony orchestras, for billionaires and before members of Congress, concedes that nothing in his extensive repertoire or résumé can compete with the current news cycle.
“My lips have never brought down a president,” Ullman, 56, told MarketWatch.
Though his music has yet to make international front pages, Ullman said he can relate to the divisive response an anonymous whistleblower is getting this week over his complaint against President Trump.
The art of whistling, like everything else in 2019, is extremely polarizing, he said. “The reaction is pretty binary – people either love it or hate it, with nothing in between.”
Former House Speaker Paul Ryan “loves it,” Ullman said. “Newt Gingrich did not.”
Ullman developed a simple test to determine a person’s political persuasion: When asked to choose between hearing a whistled rendition of “In the Mood” or the theme from “The Lone Ranger,” he said, “Democrats universally pick Glenn Miller, and Republicans pick the cowboy shoot-’em-up song.”
Though whistling has long been his side hustle, blowing hot air though a narrow aperture is also part of his day job running a boutique public-relations firm. Previously he ran communications for the SEC and for the Carlyle Group. He’s whistled in powerful circles, too, including a performance for George W. Bush in the Oval Office.
As a performer and advocate for the art, Ullman has perhaps done more to make whistling sexy than anyone since Lauren Bacall. Unfortunately, he says, the word “whistle” itself increasingly has negative connotation even among those who enjoy his music.
Terms like “whistleblower,” and particularly “dog whistle,” often used to convey thinly veiled racism, have somewhat tarnished the whistle’s good name, he said.
“It has terrible connotations,” he said. “That said, serious whistlers are so desperate for any public recognition we will take whatever we can. We still struggle for legitimacy.”
This is a far cry from whistling’s earlier portrayals in pop culture. “When you get in trouble and you don’t know right from wrong, give a little whistle,” Jiminy Cricket sang to Pinocchio.
“Just whistle while you work, and cheerfully together we can tidy up the place,” Snow White added.
Other pro whistlers say their art can withstand the current usage of the word. “I only wish my form of ‘whistleblowing’ was as impactful and important as the work that these brave whistleblowers have been doing,” Molly Lewis said. “They give whistling a good name. They are the true heroes of whistling. I encourage everyone to whistleblow.”
(For those interested in hearing whistleblowers in action, Ullman is performing Sept. 29 in Delaware with the Newark Symphony Orchestra).