William Proxmire

Biography

William Proxmire, the son of a wealthy surgeon, was born in Lake Forest, Illinois, on 11th November, 1915. He studied at Yale University and Harvard Business School. After the Japanese Airforce bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, William Proxmire enlisted in the US Army as a private. He was assigned to counterintelligence work and was discharged in 1946 as a first lieutenant.

Proxmire moved to Wisconsin to be a reporter for The Capital Times in Madison. According to Proxmire: "They fired me after I'd been there seven months, for labor activities and impertinence." William Proxmire stayed in Wisconsin and worked briefly for a union newspaper. He also had a weekly radio show called Labor Sounds Off, sponsored by the American Federation of Labor.

Proxmire took an interest in politics and his idol was Robert La Follette. A member of the Democratic Party, Proxmire failed in his attempts to become governor of Wisconsin in 1952, 1954 and 1956. Proxmire was elected to the Senate in 1957 to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Joseph R. McCarthy.

A strong supporter of Civil Rights, in his first term, he clashed with the Senate majority leader, Lyndon B. Johnson, because he thought he was blocking civil rights legislation. He was also a leading critic of the oil depletion allowance. Johnson used his position in the Senate to get Proxmire removed from the important Finance Committee. Proxmire responded by calling Johnson a dictator and a paid spokesman for the Texas oil industry.

President John F. Kennedy agreed with William Proxmire about the oil depletion allowance and talked of it being reduced from its high level of 27.5 per cent. This was not implemented before his death in November, 1963. It remained unchanged during Johnson's presidency. According to Barr McClellan this resulted in a saving of over 100 million dollars to the American oil industry. Soon after Johnson left office it dropped to 15 per cent.

William Proxmire voted for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution but later felt that Lyndon B. Johnson misled Congress and he became an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War. He used his seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee to spotlight wasteful military spending and was instrumental in stopping frequent military pork barrel projects (government spending that is intended to benefit constituents of a politician in return for their political support, either in the form of campaign contributions or votes).

Proxmire was unhappy that the United States government would not sign up in support of the UN Genocide Convention. Starting in 1967, he made a speech every day Congress convened - a total of 3,211 speeches - over a 19 year period. His campaign came to an end when the genocide convention was accepted in 1986.

In 1975 William Proxmire established his annual Golden Fleece Awards. In this way he "publicized outlandish government spending, bureaucratic wastage or money misused in the case of self-advancement". Some examples of his Golden Fleece awards was the US navy's use of 64 planes to fly 1,334 pilots to a reunion in Las Vegas and doormats that cost the navy $792 each.

Proxmire served as chairman of the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs until his retirement in 1988.

William Proxmire died on 15th December, 2005.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Indianapolis Star (16th December, 2005)

Former Sen. William Proxmire, the Wisconsin Democrat who fought government waste for years with his mocking "Golden Fleece" awards, died Thursday at 90.

Proxmire was known for battling for causes that few colleagues embraced. He won re-election repeatedly without accepting campaign donations and fought for ratification of an anti-genocide treaty, which the Senate approved in 1986, two years before his retirement. The former senator, who suffered from Alzheimer's disease, died at a convalescent home in Sykesville, Md.

"He was a constant profile in courage on countless issues, continually insisting that the Senate live up to its ideals and always willing to wage lonely battles for noble causes," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

Proxmire's monthly "Golden Fleece" awards, which he began in 1975 to point out what he thought were frivolous expenditures of taxpayers' money, became a Washington tradition.

He was elected to the Senate in 1957 to fill the seat left vacant by the death of Joseph McCarthy, the Republican made infamous for his communist witch hunts.

Proxmire was re-elected in 1958 to his first six-year term and was returned to the same post in 1964, 1970, 1976 and 1982.

Long before the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law, Proxmire made a point of accepting no contributions. In 1982 he registered only $145.10 in campaign costs, yet gleaned 64 percent of the vote.

The son of a wealthy physician in Lake Forest, Ill., Proxmire graduated from Yale University and Harvard Business School. He served with military intelligence in World War II and later moved to Wisconsin to begin a career in politics.

After three unsuccessful attempts at winning the governorship, Proxmire won McCarthy's vacant seat.

(2) Adam Bernstein, Washington Post (16th December, 2005)

William Proxmire, 90, a Wisconsin Democrat whose enthusiasm for clean living became as much his U.S. Senate hallmark as his good-governance measures and ``Golden Fleece'' awards, died Thursday at the Copper Ridge care facility in Sykesville, Md. He had Alzheimer's disease.

Mr. Proxmire, who served from 1957 to 1989, was considered one of the most tenacious legislators on Capitol Hill. He built a reputation as a public scold on fiscal matters, even when his focus did not seem to apply to his own state's dairy price supports. He was a political loner in Washington while becoming one of his state's most revered characters.

The senator was a fitness and health advocate - jogging to work, early to bed - and he liked to link his disciplined personal habits with his political image. He was said to reprimand an aide repeatedly for eating doughnuts.

Mr. Proxmire was an independent-minded activist and used his increasingly influential civic pulpit to garner publicity for his causes and, some said, himself.

He was chairman of the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs from 1975 to 1981 and became the ranking minority member on the Appropriations Committee.

Those positions gave him more authority to criticize government spending, particularly military expenditures.

In addition, he pushed for consumer protection laws. The most notable was the 1968 Consumer Credit Protection Act, known as the "Truth in Lending Act,'' requiring lenders to disclose interest rates and finance charges owed them by borrowers.

He denounced redlining, a racially discriminatory real estate practice; helped shepherd legislation making it illegal for U.S. companies to bribe foreign governments for business contracts; and played a key role in eliminating funding for a supersonic transport plane.

Over 19 years, he gave more than 3,000 speeches on the Senate floor supporting ratification of an international treaty outlawing genocide before the bill passed in 1986. The measure had spent nearly four decades under consideration.

Mr. Proxmire became a household name for his monthly Golden Fleece awards to highlight ``the biggest or most ridiculous or most ironic example of government waste.'' The ceremony, as such, was a speech on the Senate floor.

Prizes went to studies that used public money to explore why prisoners like to escape from jail and the shapeliness of airplane stewardesses.

He cut a largely solitary figure in Washington. That was an outgrowth of his lone approach to politics by day and his preference to read instead of socialize with his colleagues at night.

Mr. Proxmire attended the Hill School in Pottstown, Pa., where he was voted ``class grind,'' and was a 1938 graduate of Yale University, where he boxed and played football. He served in the Army Counterintelligence Corps during World War II and received two master's degrees, in public administration and business administration, from Harvard University.

He worked briefly for J.P. Morgan & Co. in New York before deciding on a career in politics. He moved to Wisconsin, a state with a history of progressive politicians, such as ``Fighting Bob'' La Follette, one of his idols.

(3) Richard Severo, New York Times (16th December, 2005)

William Proxmire, a political maverick during 32 years in the Senate who crusaded against government waste and irritated presidents and lawmakers from both parties because of his contempt for the mutual back-scratching most politicians engage in, died yesterday in Sykesville, Md., about 40 miles from Washington. He was 90.

He died at the Copper Ridge Nursing Home, said Mindy Brandt, a spokeswoman for the home. Ms. Brandt said she could provide no further details.

Mr. Proxmire had Alzheimer's disease and had been out of the spotlight for more than a decade. He left the Senate in 1989.

A Democrat from Wisconsin, he was chairman of the Banking Committee and was involved in many important legislative battles, most notably successful drives to win Senate approval of a treaty outlawing genocide and rejection of money for a supersonic transport plane.

But he was best known for his Golden Fleece Awards, which he announced in monthly press releases to call attention to what he believed to be frivolous government spending. An award, for instance, went to the National Science Foundation in 1975 for spending $84,000 to learn why people fall in love.

Mr. Proxmire is also remembered for his regimen of daily exercise (in his prime, he jogged nearly 10 miles a day), his spartan diet, his hair transplants and face lift, his refusal to accept campaign donations or reimbursements for travel expenses and his string of not missing roll-call votes, which lasted more than 20 years.

Mr. Proxmire was first elected to the Senate in 1957 to fill the unexpired term of the late Joseph R. McCarthy, the Republican who was censured for reckless attacks on those he accused of being communists or fellow travelers. Although he spent only a few hundred dollars on his campaigns, all of it out of his own pocket, Mr. Proxmire was easily re-elected five times.

His Golden Fleece Award, to gain publicity for his crusade against wasteful spending, became "as much a part of the Senate as quorum calls and filibusters," said Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, the Democratic leader during part of Mr. Proxmire's career.

Speaking of the National Science Foundation's grant on falling in love, Mr. Proxmire said such a study was better left to "poets and mystics, to Irving Berlin, to thousands of high school and college bull sessions."

Another Golden Fleece Award went to the National Institute for Mental Health, which spent $97,000 to study, among other things, what went on in a Peruvian brothel. The researchers said they made repeated visits in the interests of accuracy.

The Federal Aviation Administration also felt Mr. Proxmire's wrath, for spending $57,800 on a study of the physical measurements of 432 airline stewardesses, paying special attention to the "length of the buttocks" and how their knees were arranged when they were seated. Other Fleece recipients were the Justice Department, for spending $27,000 to determine why prisoners wanted to get out of jail, and the Pentagon, for a $3,000 study to determine if people in the military should carry umbrellas in the rain.

When Mr. Proxmire set his mind to a task, he rarely relented until it was accomplished. For 19 years, he gave a speech on the floor nearly every morning the Senate was in session on behalf of the genocide treaty, more than 3,000 speeches in all. Finally, in 1986, the treaty was approved.

On the Banking Committee, he was tireless in pursuit of laws requiring lenders and credit card companies to disclose true lending rates and legislation enabling consumers to determine their credit ratings. He also pushed for more competition in financial services.

His penny-pinching was the bane not just of defense contractors but also of fellow senators, whose raises and large campaign funds he regularly opposed. Many of his colleagues thought he was a self-centered grandstander.

Generally, he was a liberal, and he was a fierce opponent of the war in Vietnam, but he never toed the party line.