Thursday, December 15, 2005

OBT: William Proxmire

William Proxmire, Senator Who Abhored Waste, Dies
By RICHARD SEVERO, The New York Times, December 15, 2005


William Proxmire of Wisconsin, the longtime gadfly of the United States Senate who thrived on exposing frivolous federal spending and dispensed Golden Fleece Awards to spotlight what he considered bad uses of taxpayers' money, died today at a nursing home in Sykesville, Md. He was 90 and had remained a resident of the Washington metropolitan area after he announced in 1987 that he would not seek re-election, ending a colorful Senate career of 31 years.

Mr. Proxmire, who was also remembered for his championing of regimens of daily exercise (in his prime, he jogged nearly 10 miles a day) and spartan diet, learned he had Alzheimer's disease in 1995 and made it public three years later. A man who was proud of his keen intellect, it was a disease he feared and perhaps had a premonition about: in 1987 The Chicago Tribune reported that shortly before he retired, a full eight years before he received his diagnosis, he asked the Senate doctor what his odds were of living to the age of 80 without getting Alzheimer's disease, which is a degenerative disorder of the brain .The disease did not run in his family but he was worried about it. He said more than once that he did not want to be a senator if his intellect was for any reason diminished. He thought he could see the infirmities of old age on the horizon when he said he would not run again.

Mr. Proxmire, a Democrat, was first elected 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. McCarthy's successor could not have provided more of a contrast.

Senator Proxmire was fervid in his opposition to unnecessary spending. His Golden Fleece of the Month Award, in which he identified some "ridiculous" government outlay, became "as much a part of the Senate as quorum calls and filibusters," Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia once observed.

A Golden Fleece was awarded, for example, to the National Science Foundation in 1975 for spending $84,000 to determine why people fell in love. Mr. Proxmire said that such study was better left to "poets and mystics, to Irving Berlin, to thousands of high school and college bull sessions, Dear Abby, Ann Landers ... "

Another Golden Fleece went to the National Institute for Mental Health, which spent $97,000 to study, among other things, the doings in a Peruvian brothel. The researchers said they had made repeated visits to the seraglio in the interests of accuracy, interviewing scarlet women "formally and informally.," They later infuriated some government officials by informing them they couldn't have a free copy of the book the taxpayers had paid for, that they'd have to buy it to find out what was seen and said.

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 Law Enforcement Administration, for spending $27,000 to determine why prisoners wanted to get out of jail, and the Pentagon, for a $3,000 study that sought to determine if people in the military should carry umbrellas during rainshowers.

Over the years that the award was given, Senator Proxmire provided steady material for reporters and headline writers and made the nation laugh.

But he counted among his most significant accomplishments the government's 1986 approval of an international treaty outlawing genocide, for which he had delivered more than 3,000 speeches in the Senate over a 19-year period and which President Ronald Reagan finally signed into law in 1988. It took 40 years for the United States to join 97 other countries in a treaty outlawing genocide and it would not have done so were it not for Mr. Proxmire's tenacity. For two decades he would deliver a speech in favor of the treaty every morning the Senate was in session.

He also was credited with helping to block federal financing for the SST supersonic transport plane in 1970; in that battle, Mr. Proxmire bested the Nixon administration, Boeing, and his fellow Democratic senators Henry Jackson and Warren Magnuson, who desperately wanted the SST to create jobs in their home state of Washington.

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 led forays against the practice by banks of "redlining" neighborhoods.

As chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, he pushed for repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, a landmark piece of New Deal legislation that, through strict regulation, sought to wipe out corrupt self-dealing in the financial system by separating banking from the brokerage business.

His penny-pinching was the bane of defense contractors, social scientists and fellow senators, whose raises and hefty campaign funds he opposed. Conservatives regarded him as a loose cannon at times; Norman C. Miller, writing in The Wall Street Journal in 1967, said Mr. Proxmire had led "fiery fights for hopeless causes." But not everything he did pleased the liberals, either; some of his fellow Democrats thought he was a self-centered grandstander. His reputation as a maverick was well earned.

In 1982, a convention of feminists booed him because he had voted against liberalizing abortion rights. Democrats were also upset when he voted to approve the conservative William H. Rehnquist as chief justice of the United States.

His Wisconsin constituents were not always pleased with him either, even though they kept voting for him. He just did not bring home the bacon the way other senators did. On one occasion, the people of LaFarge wanted some federal money to improve a lake. Congress was more than willing but Senator Proxmire shot it down, calling it a waste. The lake became a mud hole and someone in LaFarge put up a sign calling it "Lake Proxmire."

And the senator had a bittersweet relationship with New York. After he was named chairman of the powerful Senate Banking Committee in 1975, he worked assiduously to get Washington to approve a $2.3 federal loan guarantee to bail out New York City, which in 1977 seemed surely headed for bankruptcy.

Mr. Proxmire argued that the aspect of the nation's greatest city going belly up would have a ripple effect across the country and serve to introduce uncertainty into the municipal bond market, with the result that cities all over the United States would probably have to pay higher interest rates on the bonds they issued, no matter what their financial health. This, in turn, would result in higher taxes for ordinary Americans, something Mr. Proxmire opposed vigorously.

Having helped to save New York, Mr. Proxmire then publicly criticized it for its profligacy and excoriated the City Council for seeking a 50 percent pay raise. He also said that municipal workers made too much money and that their pensions and welfare benefits were too cushy. He added that the politicians presiding over such a mess seemed rather silly to continue free tuition at the City University. For such criticism The Daily News called him "Senator Scrooge" in a large headline. Mr. Proxmire minded that not a jot; he showed up at his staff's Christmas party that year wearing a "Senator Scrooge" name tag.

Edward William Proxmire was born Nov. 11, 1915, in Lake Forest, Ill., the son of Dr. Theodore Proxmire, a prominent physician and steadfast Republican, and his wife, the former Adele Flanigan. He had an older brother and a younger sister, both long ago deceased. When young Edward was about 6 years old, he saw a movie starring William S. Hart, the legendary cowboy of the silent screen. He was so taken with Mr. Hart's independent, loner kind of heroism that he insisted from that day on that he be called William, not Edward.

The family was well to do, and he was sent to the Hill School in Pottstown, Pa. There he was referred to as "the biggest grind" and "the biggest sponger." After his graduation in 1934, he went to Yale, where he became an English major.

He graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1938 and immediately enrolled at Harvard, where he became a teaching fellow and got a master's degree in business administration. He then went to New York, where he got an entry level job with J.P. Morgan. When the United States entered World War II, he enlisted in the Army as a private; assigned to counterintelligence work, he was discharged in 1946 as a first lieutenant. He returned to Harvard and in 1948 got a second master's degree - this one in public administration - and tried to figure what he wanted to do with his life.

In 1949, Mr. Proxmire became a reporter for The Capital Times in Madison, Wis. They fired me after I'd been there seven months, for labor activities and impertinence," he once said, conceding that his dismissal was merited.

He moved on and briefly worked for a union newspaper where he found it not difficult at all to characterize certain individuals as "no friend of labor." He also briefly had a weekly radio show called "Labor Sounds Off," which was sponsored by the American Federation of Labor.

In 1950, he ran for the Wisconsin State Assembly and won, defeating a six-term incumbent in the Democratic primary and trouncing his Republican opponent in the general election. Mr. Proxmire found that he loved campaigning - meeting people, pressing the flesh, hearing what they had to say and telling them what his own vision was.

He then decided he wanted to be Wisconsin's governor and ran three times unsuccessfully; twice against Walter J. Kohler, an incumbent Republican, and once against another Republican, Vernon Thompson. When he ran for the Senate seat left vacant by the death of Joe McCarthy, his opponent was Walter J. Kohler again. But this time, Mr. Proxmire won. The next year, when he ran for a full term, he easily defeated his Republican challenger, Ronald J. Steinle.

From the beginning of his service in Washington, found himself frequently at odds not just with Republicans but with members of his own party. He had early clashes with Lyndon B. Johnson, the Senate majority leader, because he thought Mr. Johnson was inclined to excessive compromise on civil rights legislation. He also did not like Mr. Johnson's support of the oil depletion allowance, which he regarded as a windfall for the petroleum industry.

Nor did Mr. Proxmire approve of President John F. Kennedy's nomination of John B. Connally as secretary of the Navy. The senator filibustered for 19 hours in an effort to prevent Mr. Kennedy's appointment of Lawrence J. O'Connor to the Federal Power Commission.

He always supported the notion of a strong military but after 1975, when he started issuing his Golden Fleece Awards, various nodes of the military establishment were frequent recipients of this honor.

For example, he gave a Fleece award to the Office of Naval Research and the National Science Foundation after he learned that they jointly spent around $500,000 to determine why rats, monkeys and people clenched their teeth when they got angry or upset. He gave another award to the Department of Defense for spending $100,000 to send brass to an Army-Navy game that was held on the West Coast.

But he also went after the National Endowment for the Humanities after it made a $2,500 grant to researchers in Virginia, who wanted to know why people were unruly and ill-mannered and why so many of them lied and cheated when they played tennis. He gave a Fleece to the Department of Agriculture, which spent $46,000 to calculate the precise time Americans spent cooking their breakfast eggs (it discouraged Agriculture from doing proposed studies on lunch and dinner).

In 1980, his "The Fleecing of America" was published by Houghton Mifflin and in it, Senator Proxmire conceded that some researchers thought he had been unfair and simplistic and needlessly hurtful. He acknowledged that academics, in particular, were needlessly stung when he highlighted certain research projects that were not easily understood. One scientist in Michigan who had been ridiculed by the senator for studying jaw-clenching monkeys sued him for libel in 1979 and there was an out-of-court settlement. In 1980, the senator reimbursed the Treasury for some of the money the Senate had paid out in its unsuccessful defense of the lawsuit.

Mr. Proxmire did not like it when a Cornell professor gave him the "Earth Is Flat Award." The professor noted that when Columbus left Spain, he had no firm evidence that North America existed. The professor suggested that had Senator Proxmire been working for King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, Europeans might still be wondering if there was a New World.

Mr. Proxmire also believed he would be cheating his constituents if he was not present in Washington attending to business so he set records in his time for Senate attendance and consecutive roll-call votes. His most-votes record, set when he cast his 12,134th vote on April 27, 1990, was broken by Senator Byrd.

His aversion to spending money extended to himself. Throughout his career, he wore inexpensive suits of the type worn by new employees who start work in the mailroom. They bore the label of "Robert Hall."

Mr. Proxmire also paid for his own plane rides when he went home to Wisconsin, which was often. He refused to spend any significant money to win re-election. 'I think fully two-thirds of the senators could get re-elected without spending a penny," he declared. He financed his own campaigns. Usually his campaign budget was well under $200 and some of that money went for postage to return money his constituents had donated to him.

His pronouncements did not stop him from being lobbied. Sometimes, the lobbyists would show up at his home in the Cleveland Park section of Northwest Washington and tried to jog with him as he ran the 4.9 miles to work at the Capitol every morning (after doing between 100 and 200 pushups). He jogged better than eight miles an hour and most lobbyists - victims of too many butterfat-and-martini luncheons - could not keep up with him.

Senator Proxmire was twice married. His first marriage to Elsie B. Rockefeller, a great-grandniece of John D. Rockefeller, ended in divorce in 1955. The following year he married Ellen Hodges Sawall, a former executive secretary of the Wisconsin Democratic Party. For years, even after he became ill, Mr. Proxmire was a great promoter of smiling. He was very conscious of the way he looked. He had a series of hair transplants, which the Washington press corps knew about and wrote about. He also had a face lift, which, it seems, almost nobody knew about. He even wrote a book explaining his outlook on exercise and life style called "You Can Do It: Senator Proxmire's Exercise, Diet and Relaxation Plan," which was published in 1973.

In retirement, he had a little office in the Library of Congress next to the La Follette Reading Room. He especially liked the location, since Robert La Follette had been Wisconsin's great progressive Senator and was one of Mr. Proxmire's heroes. He would jog there, too, just as he had to the Capitol. But there came a time when he began to fall. And he noticed that he could not remember anything he had read.

"I can't remember what I've read," he told a reporter. "Sometimes I can't remember where I am." But he added, "Regardless of what happens to you, get a smile on your face and keep it there."