Proxmire, (Edward) William

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Proxmire, (Edward) William

(b. 11 November 1915 in Lake Forest, Illinois; d. 15 December 2005 in Sykesville, Maryland), U.S. Senator from Wisconsin for more than thirty years, best known for his Golden Fleece Awards highlighting government waste.

Proxmire was the second of three children born to Theodore S. Proxmire, a surgeon, and Adele (Flanigan) Proxmire, a housewife. As a young boy, Proxmire dropped his first name of “Edward” and insisted on being called “William” after seeing a silent film starring William S. Hart, who played a plainspoken, heroic cowboy. Proxmire attended the Hill School, a private preparatory school in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, where he was successful academically and also a champion boxer. His tireless work ethic was evident even as an adolescent, and he was voted “biggest grind” by his Hill classmates. He studied English as an undergraduate at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. After graduating from Yale with a BA in 1938, he entered Harvard Business School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and earned his MBA in 1940. Proxmire then accepted an entry-level job with J. P. Morgan on Wall Street in New York City.

In 1941 Proxmire enlisted in the U.S. Army and served stateside throughout World War II in the Counterintelligence Corps. He was discharged in 1946 having achieved the rank of first lieutenant. After the war he returned to Harvard and worked as a teaching fellow while studying at the Graduate School of Public Administration. Also in September 1946 Proxmire met and married Elsie Rockefeller, a great-grandniece of the wealthy industrialist John D. Rockefeller. The couple had two children before they divorced in 1955. Upon graduating from Harvard with an MPA in 1948, Proxmire had narrowed his career choices down to journalism or politics. He once explained his plans to a reporter by saying, “I decided to look around for a newspaper job that might give me political options.”

Although his father was a staunch Republican, Proxmire became interested in Democratic Party politics during his time at Harvard. He concluded that the ailing Democratic Party in Wisconsin would provide him with the best prospects to gain a foothold in the local political organization. In 1949 he took a job as a reporter for the Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin. He soon found himself at odds with the editors as a result of his subjective reporting style and his involvement in organized labor activities. He left the Capital Times and worked briefly for a union newspaper and also hosted a weekly radio program called Labor Sounds Off.

In 1950 Proxmire entered his first political campaign as a candidate for the Wisconsin State Assembly. From this very first effort, Proxmire showed himself to be a meet-and-greet-style candidate, taking advantage of any opportunity to get out and meet the voters. His diligence paid off and he defeated a six-term incumbent in the Democratic primary and then easily beat the Republican challenger in the general election. Proxmire served just one term in the Republican-controlled assembly before setting his sights on the governorship in 1952. Running against the incumbent Republican governor, Walter Kohler, he was at a great disadvantage and lost heavily. Indicative of his persistent and determined character, however, he chose to run against Kohler again in 1954, and again he lost. In 1956 he ran once again, this time against the Republican Vernon Thompson, and he was unsuccessful for the third time.

During this period Proxmire owned a small printing company in Waterloo, Wisconsin, which printed several union papers. On 1 December 1956 he married Ellen Hodges Sawall, whom he met while she was the executive secretary of the Wisconsin Democratic organization. For years Ellen Proxmire served as her husband’s campaign manager until she began her own business as a special events planner. She also wrote One Foot in Washington: The Perilous Life of a Senator’s Wife (1964). Married for nearly fifty years, the Proxmires raised five children: a son and daughter from his first marriage, two daughters from her previous marriage, and the couple’s son. They also had a son together who died in infancy.

When U.S. Senator Joseph R. McCarthy passed away in May 1957, Proxmire entered the special election to serve the remainder of McCarthy’s term. Focusing on issues that concerned the farmers and labor voters of Wisconsin, Proxmire campaigned tirelessly, shaking hands with thousands of people and speaking as often as possible. His opponent once again was Kohler and, despite being considered the heavy underdog, Proxmire shocked many by emerging victorious on 27 August 1957. When he arrived in Washington, D.C., the next day, he was greeted at the airport with great fanfare by some of his new Democratic colleagues from the Senate, including Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson. His election had kept the Democrats in control of the Senate and gave the party hope for their prospects in upcoming elections.

Early on during his career in the Senate, Proxmire established himself as an independent-minded politician. He often acted without consulting party leaders, waged one-man filibusters, and was never a sure vote for the Democratic position. In February 1959, following the annual ceremonial reading of George Washington’s Farewell Address (1796), Proxmire issued a stinging rebuke of Majority Leader Johnson’s immense power over the Democratic Party in the Senate. Insisting, “The Democratic caucus of the Senate is in fact dead,” he argued, “There has never been a time when power has been more sharply concentrated as it is today in the Senate.” Proxmire called for the return of democracy within the Democratic Party in the Senate. When he was finished it was said that the freshman senator had delivered his own farewell address to the Senate that day. Instead, he was reelected to five full terms in the Senate and enjoyed a long career of more than thirty years as a U.S. Senator. When he retired in 1989, he was the institution’s third-most senior member.

Proxmire was perhaps best known for his fiscal conservatism and aversion to wasteful and frivolous government spending. While he was an ardent supporter of such liberal social programs as Social Security and Medicare, he believed in the motto, “A liberal need not be a wastrel.” He took on Richard M. Nixon’s administration and in 1971 helped put an end to the supersonic transport program, arguing that the effort was too costly both monetarily and environmentally. Proxmire repeatedly voiced his concern about military spending which he often felt to be excessive beyond its value. He wrote three books about wasteful government spending, 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).

After he became the chairman of the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs in 1975, he began what would become a Washington tradition of presenting a monthly Golden Fleece Award to “the biggest, most ridiculous or most ironic example of government spending.” The first Golden Fleece Award went to the National Science Foundation for its $84,000 study on why people fall in love. Other winners were the Justice Department for an examination into why prisoners want to get out of jail and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse for spending $100,000 to study the aggressiveness of drunken fish.

While he received a great deal of favorable publicity, Proxmire and his award were not without critics. He was referred to by some in the academic world as an anti-intellectual miser, and his political opponents often accused him of showboating for self-promotion and pointed to his continuous protection of the expensive milk price supports given to his state’s dairy farmers. In 1976 he was sued for libel by Ronald Hutchinson, a researcher who had been on the receiving end of one of the senator’s awards. The case went to the Supreme Court over the question of congressional immunity. In 1979 the Court determined that a senator’s press releases were not protected by congressional immunity and ruled the suit could be tried in a lower court. The two parties eventually settled out of court, however.

The senator’s frugal nature was also evident in his approach to campaigning. Insisting that most incumbent senators could get reelected without spending a dime, he refused to accept any campaign donations during his last two campaigns. His reelection bid in 1982 cost him only $150, some of which was money spent on postage to return contributions. He regularly opposed salary increases for members of Congress and refused to use government money to travel abroad. He also spent less than most senators in the way of office administration and returned a portion of his allotted office funds to the U.S. Treasury at the end of each year.

Proxmire was also well known for his dedication to health and fitness. His diet and exercise regime was so disciplined that it bordered on fanatical. He ran to and from the Capitol daily, nearly five miles each way, regardless of the weather. He did not drink alcohol, kept a daily food journal, and was the author of two books on the subject of diet and physical fitness. This healthy approach to living helped him to set a likely unbeatable attendance record in the Senate. Over a period of more than twenty years he did not miss a single vote, casting more than 10,000 consecutive roll call votes before leaving the Senate in 1989. After his retirement Proxmire remained in Washington, lecturing and writing a newspaper column. In 1998 he revealed that he had Alzheimer’s disease. He died at age ninety at Copper Ridge, a convalescent home in Sykesville. He is buried in Lake Forest Cemetery in the town of his birth.

Proxmire’s reputation as a maverick persisted throughout his Senate career as he fought tenaciously for the issues in which he believed most. He considered his greatest legacy to be the 1986 Senate passage of an international treaty banning genocide. Beginning in 1967, Proxmire spoke daily in favor of the treaty, which had been created by the 1948 United Nations Genocide Convention. He gave more than 3,000 speeches in all before his efforts finally paid off nearly twenty years after he began his crusade for Senate ratification. He also fought hard for consumer protection legislation and was the sponsor of the 1968 Truth in Lending Act, which required creditors to disclose interest rates to borrowers and also allowed consumers access to their credit reports.

Proxmire’s papers are housed at the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison. Biographical sources include Jay G. Sykes, Proxmire (1972), which recounts the senator’s early life and examines his personal character and political career; and Ralph K. Huitt, “The Outsider in the Senate: An Alternative Role,” American Political Science Review 55, no. 3 (Sept. 1961): 566–575, a case study of Proxmire’s first two years in the Senate. Obituaries are in the New York Times and Washington Post (both 16 Dec. 2005). Oral histories with Proxmire can be found at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum in Austin, Texas, and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, Massachusetts. See also the U.S. Senate Historical Office (Washington, D.C.) oral history interview with Howard E. Shuman, the administrative assistant to Senator Proxmire.

Mary Baumann