Proxmire, William 1915–2005

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Proxmire, William 1915–2005

(Edward William Proxmire)

OBITUARY NOTICE—See index for CA sketch: Born November 11, 1915, in Lake Forest, IL; died December 15, 2005, in Sykesville, MD. Politician and author. Proxmire was an outspoken Democratic U.S. Senator from Wisconsin who served in the nation's capital from 1957 to 1988 and was particularly noted for his criticisms of government spending. A Yale University graduate, he completed his B.A. in 1938 and was working on a master's degree at Harvard University when World War II broke out. During the war, he served in the Counterintelligence Corps for the army, becoming a first lieutenant. He then returned home to completed two master's degrees at Harvard in 1948: one in business and one in public administration. Moving to Wisconsin, he chose a career in journalism and became a reporter for the Capital Times in 1949 and then the Madison Union Labor News the next year. Proxmire's strong opinions and personality got him in trouble with his editors, however, and he soon found himself demoted to writing obituaries. One of Proxmire's reasons for moving to Wisconsin was that he had been inspired by the state's tradition of outspoken politicians. He left journalism, therefore, and won a term on the Wisconsin State Assembly. Next, he campaigned unsuccessfully to oust Republican Governor Walter J. Kohler from office. When Eugene McCarthy passed away, however, Proxmire won his U.S. Senate seat in a special election in 1957. Winning reelection the next year, the senator retained his office until he decided to retire in 1988. Over three decades, Proxmire established a reputation as a stern critic of wasteful government spending. This gained him both admirers and detractors. At times, Proxmire became so strident in his criticism that he found himself increasingly isolated from his peers. This problem was exacerbated by the fact that the senator tended to be somewhat reclusive, often shunning socializing with his colleagues in favor of reading books and reports alone. However, there was no doubt that Proxmire was a hard worker, and this resulted in his holding several powerful committee positions. Over the years, he chaired the Senate Banking Committee, the Consumer Credit Subcommittee, and the Joint Economic Committee, as well as being a member of other influential committees, such as the Appropriations Committee and the Banking and Currency Committee. This afforded him the opportunity to see firsthand how poorly taxpayer money was being spent. Irritated by this irresponsibility in Congress, in 1975 Proxmire established the Golden Fleece Awards. Both a humorous and disturbing honor, these awards were presented to those who had created "the biggest or most ridiculous or most ironic example of government waste" over the past year. A number of the awards were given for silly studies paid for by the government, such as one study that examined just why prisoners would wish to escape from jail and another that analyzed what would happen if fish drank alcohol. Occasionally, the awards backfired on Proxmire, such as when a scientific researcher sued the senator for libel when he was given the Golden Fleece for a study on monkeys. The Golden Fleece Awards were just a sideline to Proxmire's very real accomplishments while in Congress, however. His efforts, for example, helped to pass the 1968 Consumer Credit Protection Act (Truth-in-Lending Act), which makes it illegal for lenders not to tell customers about the interest rates and fees they are charged for a loan. It was because of Proxmire, too, that legislation was passed making it illegal for the federal government to give foreign countries money in order to win business contracts. He was also a constant watchdog of other areas of waste, such as unnecessary military spending on projects that did not serve in the defense of the country and mostly resulted in enriching contractors' bank accounts. After he stepped down from office, Proxmire became a freelance columnist and a television commentator for CNBC until the late 1990s, when Alzheimer's began to effect his memory. Proxmire's zeal for pointing out government spending flaws carried over into his books, including Report from Wasteland: America's Military-Industrial Complex (1970), Uncle Sam—The Last of the Bigtime Spenders (1972), and The Fleecing of America (1980). Also very concerned about physical health, Proxmire was known for keeping a strict exercise regimen; he advised readers how to stay healthy, too, in his 1993 book, Your Joy Ride to Health.



Los Angeles Times, December 16, 2005, p. B12.

New York Times, December 16, 2005, p. C17.

Washington Post, December 16, 2005, pp. A1, A11.