William Proxmire, 90; Maverick U.S. Senator Fought Government Waste

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Times Staff Writer

Two Democratic senators, William Proxmire and Walter F. Mondale, found themselves late one night years ago on a flight home to the Midwest. Mondale, heading to Minnesota, bemoaned the Senate schedule that forced them to travel in the middle of the night.

Proxmire, on his way to Wisconsin, saw it differently. With the near-midnight flight, he told Mondale, he could work well into the evening in the Senate “and be at a shopping center at 6 a.m.” to shake hands for three or four hours -- “the best part of the day,” he told his colleague.

Proxmire, who died Thursday at the age of 90, was an indefatigable campaigner who fought the ever-increasing budgets of modern campaigns by returning constantly to Wisconsin to deliver a personal touch to as many voters as he could reach.


He was also a frugal progressive who fought to enact the signature programs of the Great Society while ridiculing government excess.

His death was confirmed by Cindy Yingling, a spokeswoman for the Maryland convalescent home where he died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease.

The Wisconsin Democrat, who served 31 years in the Senate -- he was elected to complete the term of the late Republican Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy in 1957, then reelected five times -- made a career of skewering examples of government waste with his monthly Golden Fleece awards.

But he also personified the progressive politics rooted in the upper Midwest since the era of Robert M. La Follette, a governor and then senator at the turn of the 20th century. Proxmire supported a wide array of government programs -- most notably consumer-oriented banking issues, as chairman of the Senate Banking Committee -- while seeking to trim what he saw as Pentagon waste at the expense of education programs.

“He was a unique, singular figure ... who listened to his own drummer,” said Mondale, the former vice president.

“The independent streak, the maverick streak -- Wisconsin liked that,” said Georgia Duerst-Lahti, a professor of political science at Beloit College in Beloit, Wis.


As a political campaigner, Proxmire was tireless -- and cheap.

As more candidates turned to television, spending hundreds of thousands and then millions of contributors’ dollars to reach potential voters, Proxmire husbanded his campaign funds, twice spending less than $500 to win reelection. He eschewed television ads and engaged in intensely personal, and inexpensive, campaigning. He planted himself for hours in shopping centers and outside the University of Wisconsin football stadium to shake hands with thousands of voters.

His style paid off. One year, according to Duerst-Lahti, his campaign spending report included $58 -- the postal expense of mailing back unused campaign contributions.

Still, he was everywhere in the state. Twice in one campaign year, Duerst-Lahti said, she ran into him in a local grocery story. He was looking for votes, not groceries.

In the Senate, he compiled a lifetime rating of 68 on the 100-point scale of Americans for Democratic Action, with a score of 100 being the most liberal.

He championed a 1948 anti-genocide treaty, a subject on which he spoke every day the Senate was in session for two decades, until the Senate ratified it in 1986.

He fought funding for the supersonic transport airplane, calling attention to the pollution critics said it would cause.


“This year we are spending about $150 million to combat air pollution. On this SST project we are asked to spend $290 million to increase air pollution,” he said in the Senate debate in 1970. The project eventually was abandoned.

A year earlier, he challenged a $2-billion increase in the cost of the C-5A cargo aircraft, the largest in the U.S. fleet at the time, saying the additional expense was “more than we were spending on aid to elementary and secondary education in the entire country.”

He would gnaw on an issue for years, ignoring conventional wisdom and popular opinion to conduct, in the words of Norman C. Miller in the Wall Street Journal in 1967, “fiery fights for hopeless causes.”

During the 1960s and again in the late ‘70s -- when Democrats ran Washington from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue and sought, often with overwhelming success, to push through Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society and other programs that carried on the New Deal traditions of Franklin D. Roosevelt -- Proxmire clashed at times with his party’s leadership.

“He was perfectly willing to vote against the Democratic leadership position if he disagreed with it,” Mondale said in a telephone interview Thursday. “He was not part of the cheering squad. He was always a skeptic. If he didn’t think something made sense, he’d vote against it.”

In 1961 and 1962, according to a Current Biography entry from 1978, Proxmire voted against positions advocated by President Kennedy on five major issues decided by five or fewer votes in the Senate.


His Golden Fleece awards, which he began presenting in 1975 for what he called the “biggest or most ridiculous or most ironic example of government waste,” went to the heart of what he saw as the role of government: It was, in his view, not just a necessity, but an entity that could improve lives. And anything that wasted the government’s money -- and diverted it from its noble purpose -- deserved public attention.

One month he drew attention to the $102,000 spent by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse to determine whether drunk fish were more aggressive than sober fish. He went after the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration for seeking $27,000 to figure out why inmates try to escape from prison.

Proxmire, whose final Senate term ended in 1989, was an inveterate runner. He regularly ran the five miles from his Washington home to the Senate, even in heavy snow.

He was born in Lake Forest, Ill., the son of a surgeon -- a Republican -- and educated at the Hill School, a boarding school in Pennsylvania, and at Yale. He earned two master’s degrees -- in business and public administration -- from Harvard.

His first marriage, to a great-grand-niece of oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, ended in divorce. He is survived by his second wife, Ellen Hodges Sawall Proxmire; two children from his first marriage; one from his second; two stepchildren; and nine grandchildren.

His first Senate campaign followed three unsuccessful gubernatorial races.

Running against Republican Walter J. Kohler Jr., who beat him twice in the race for the statehouse, he declared:


“My opponent doesn’t know what it is to lose. I do. And I’ll welcome the support of voters who do too. I’ll take the losers. I’ll take the debtors. I’ll take those who’ve lost in love, or baseball, or in business. I’ll take the Milwaukee Braves.”

Proxmire won.