• U.S.

Senator William Proxmire: A Personal Appreciation

5 minute read
Douglas Waller/Washington

A true Senate maverick died Thursday, when 90-year-old William Proxmire, who represented Wisconsin from 1957 to 1988, finally succumbed to the ravages of Alzheimer’s. It was particularly sad news for me, having worked as a legislative assistant to the senator during his last four years in office. In this age of blow-dried lawmakers whose tenure depends on their ability to raise millions of dollars in campaign funds, “Prox” was an oddity—one unlikely ever to be replicated, even by such latter-day mavericks as Senator John McCain.

In his last two elections, 1976 and 1982, Proxmire accepted no campaign contributions. In 1982, he spent a total of $145.10 on his race—to cover the filing fee and postage to return unsolicited donations. Yet, Proxmire won by hefty margins, because Wisconsin voters saw him as a true independent, willing to tirelessly practice retail politics. He’d return to the state from Washington every weekend to shake hands, keeping a mechanical clicker in his pocket to count the number he pumped—usually calling it a day when the total reached about 2,000. Wisconsin voters used to chuckle that they couldn’t attend a Green Bay Packers game without being greeted by Prox.

The son of a wealthy Illinois doctor, Proxmire moved to Wisconsin after determining it represented the best opportunity for a newcomer to break into politics. After three failed runs for governor, he finally was elected in 1957 to the Senate seat left vacant by the death of Joe McCarthy. The first-term Democrat almost immediately identified himself as a maverick, angering the chamber’s legislative barons and successive administrations by opposing wasteful programs.

In 1975, Proxmire began awarding a Golden Fleece each month to an example of government excess. Recipients included the Commerce Department for a $28,000 study of the best surfing beaches in Honolulu, and the Economic Development Administration for spending $20,000 to build a replica of theGreat Wall of China in Indiana. My favorite fleece—because I did the research for it—was for $6,000 the Army spent funding a 17-page study on how to buy Worcestershire sauce. Prox told reporters that whoever dreamed up that project “must have been on the sauce.”

Senator Proxmire was a creature of routine. A fitness buff, he ran five miles and did 50 pushups and sit-ups each day. His daily lunches were equally predictable: cottage cheese one day, sardines and milk the next, and liver and onions the day after that. From April 1966 to October 1988, Proxmire cast 10,261 consecutive votes, the record up to that point. Every staff member lived in constant fear of being the one who failed to alert him to a roll call in time for him to make the vote. He was also a dogged advocate of causes in which he believed: In 1967, Proxmire gave the first of an eventual 3,000 speeches pestering the Senate to adopt the international Genocide Convention, which was finally ratified in 1986.

Proxmire constantly tested himself, penning 500 words each day to keep his writing skills in shape and inviting each new intern to march into his office and begin debating him on the topic of the intern’s choice, to keep him mentally fit for encounters with constituents back home. I remember walking into his office on a day when he wasn’t there and seeing a legal pad on his desk listing more than 50 issues, with a grade beside each one indicating how well he believed he’d mastered it. Proxmire was, not surprisingly, a workaholic, and also a notorious tightwad. He worked seven days a week and was grumpy on holidays when Federal offices closed, and regularly reimbursed the Senate for unused staff money. After a junket to Europe as a junior senator, he decided such trips wasted taxpayer money, and never again traveled abroad on the federal dollar. The senator finally let me travel to some defense installations on a government-paid staff trip after I showed him how the information I collected would bolster legislation he was proposing to cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the Pentagon budget. But he did so only after checking the airline schedules himself to make sure I was booking the cheapest ticket.

Proxmire could be vain and he had his faults. He endured a good bit of teasing from the press for a hair transplant, and for all his penny-pinching, he did back expensive dairy price supports—a rich piece of pork to keep his Wisconsin dairy farmers happy. But Prox would fire back that he paid for the transplant and he could move his hair to anywhere he liked. And he backed dairy price supports at the behest of his constituents, not because a lobbyist with a fat campaign check had persuaded him. Proxmire eventually became somewhat of a Senate baron himself, chairing the Banking Committee for six years, where he first opposed then eventually backed a federal bailout for New York City. He surprised us when he announced in the fall of 1988 that he was resigning. He later confided that he wanted to leave at his physical and mental peak, not hang around past his prime as he’d seen other Senate old-timers do. That made his Alzheimer’s disease, which was diagnosed after he retired, an even crueler irony to endure.

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