William Proxmire

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Bill Proxmire
Senator William Proxmire.jpg
United States Senator
from Wisconsin
In office
August 28, 1957 – January 3, 1989
Preceded by Joseph McCarthy
Succeeded by Herb Kohl
Member of the Wisconsin State Assembly from the
Dane County 2nd District
In office
January 10, 1951 – January 13, 1953
Preceded by John M. Blaska
Succeeded by Ervin M. Bruner
Personal details
Born Edward William Proxmire
(1915-11-11)November 11, 1915
Lake Forest, Illinois, U.S.
Died December 15, 2005(2005-12-15) (aged 90)
Sykesville, Maryland, U.S.
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Elsie Stillman Rockefeller (1946–1955)
Ellen Hodges Sawall (1956–2005)
Children 4
Education Yale University (BA)
Harvard University (MBA, MPA)

Edward William Proxmire (November 11, 1915 – December 15, 2005) was an American politician. A member of the Democratic Party, he served as a United States Senator from Wisconsin from 1957 to 1989, the longest term served by a Wisconsin senator.[1]

Proxmire was a member of the Senate Banking Committee, The Senate Appropriations Committee, and the Joint Economic Committee. In each of those committees he was an aggressive critic of wasteful government spending. At the Joint Economic Committee he exposed numerous instances of wasteful spending on military programs such as the C-5 aircraft and the F-16 fighter, and other government programs such as the supersonic aircraft.

Early life[edit]

The son of Dr. Theodore Stanley Proxmire, a prominent Chicago-area surgeon, and Adele (Flanigan) Proxmire, Edward William Proxmire was born in Lake Forest, Illinois on November 11, 1915. (He later decided to use "William" rather than "Edward" out of admiration for the films of actor William S. Hart.)[2] He graduated from The Hill School (in Pottstown, Pennsylvania) in 1933,[3] Yale University in 1938 (B.A.), Harvard Business School in 1940 (M.B.A.), and Harvard Graduate School of Public Administration in 1948 (M.P.A.).[3] While at Yale, Proxmire joined the Chi Psi fraternity.[4] During 1940 and 1941, Proxmire was a student clerk at J.P. Morgan & Co.,[5] and studied public speaking at Columbia University.[6]

During World War II he joined the United States Army as a private, and advanced through the ranks to become a master sergeant.[7] He later received a commission in the Military Intelligence branch, and most of his service involved counterintelligence work in the Chicago area.[8] He served from 1941 to 1946,[9] and was discharged as a first lieutenant.[10] While in the Army, Proxmire also continued to study public speaking at Northwestern University.[11] After his discharge, he was an executive trainee at J. P. Morgan before deciding to return to Harvard.[12]

After getting his second master's degree while working as a teaching fellow at Harvard, Proxmire moved to Wisconsin to be a reporter for The Capital Times in Madison and to stake out a political career in a favorable state. "They fired me after I'd been there seven months, for labor activities and impertinence," he once said.[3] When he ran for the state legislature in 1950, Proxmire was working as the business manager of the Union Labor News, a publication of the Madison Federation of Labor.[13]

Legislative career[edit]

William Proxmire taking part in "Old Milwaukee Days" annual parade, photo from September, 1973

Proxmire served as a member of the Wisconsin State Assembly from 1951 to 1953.[14] He was employed as president of Artcraft Press of Waterloo,[15] and was an unsuccessful candidate for Governor of Wisconsin in 1952, 1954 and 1956.[16] Proxmire was elected, in a special election on August 28, 1957, to fill the remainder of the term vacated due to the death of Senator Joseph McCarthy, on May 2, 1957.[17] He paid no homage to his predecessor in the Senate, stating that McCarthy was a "disgrace to Wisconsin, to the Senate, and to America".[18] Proxmire was reelected in 1958, 1964, 1970, 1976 and 1982. His re-elections were always achieved by wide margins, including 71% of the vote in 1970, 73% in 1976 and 65% in 1982, when he ran for a fifth six-year term. In his last two Senate campaigns of 1976 and 1982, Proxmire refused to take any campaign contributions, and on each spent less than $200 out of his own pocket — to cover the expenses related to filing for re-election and return postage for unsolicited contributions. He was an early advocate of campaign finance reform.[19]

Proxmire holds the U.S. Senate record for consecutive roll call votes cast: 10,252 between April 20, 1966 and October 18, 1988.[19] In doing so, he surpassed the previous record of 2,941 which was held by Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine.[20]

Proxmire served as the Chair of the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs from 1975 to 1981 and again from 1987 to 1989. During his first tenure in this position, Proxmire was instrumental in devising the financial plan that saved New York City from bankruptcy in 1976–77.[3]

He was an early, outspoken critic of the Vietnam War who frequently criticized Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon for their conduct of the war and foreign policy decisions.[19] 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.[19] Despite his support of budgetary restraint in other areas, he regularly sided with dairy interests and was a proponent of dairy price supports.[21]

From 1967 until 1986, Proxmire gave daily speeches noting the necessity of ratifying The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. After giving this speech every day that the Senate was in session for 20 years, resulting in 3,211 speeches, the convention was ratified by the U.S. Senate by a vote of 83–11 on February 11, 1986.[3]

Proxmire was head of the campaign to cancel the American supersonic transport and particularly opposed to space exploration, ultimately eliminating spending on said research from NASA's budget.[22] In response to a segment about space colonies run by the CBS program 60 Minutes, Proxmire stated that; "it's the best argument yet for chopping NASA's funding to the bone .... I say not a penny for this nutty fantasy".[23] Proxmire introduced an amendment into the 1982 NASA budget that effectively terminated NASA's nascent SETI efforts before a similar amendment to the 1994 budget, by Senator Richard Bryan, terminated NASA's SETI efforts for good.[24] With these positions Proxmire drew the enmity of many space advocates and science fiction fandom. Arthur C. Clarke attacked Proxmire in his short story "Death and the Senator" (1960). Later, the short story "The Return of William Proxmire" (1989) by Larry Niven and the novel Fallen Angels (1991), written by Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Michael F. Flynn, were directed against the senator.

He refused to accept reimbursements for travel expenses related to his Senate duties.[25]

Golden Fleece Award[edit]

Proxmire was noted for issuing his Golden Fleece Award,[19] which was presented monthly between 1975 and 1988, in order to focus media attention on projects Proxmire viewed as self-serving and wasteful of taxpayer dollars.[3] The first Golden Fleece Award was awarded in 1975 to the National Science Foundation, for funding an $84,000 study on why people fall in love.[3] Other Golden Fleece awards over the years were awarded to the Justice Department for conducting a study on why prisoners wanted to get out of jail, the National Institute of Mental Health to study a Peruvian brothel ("The researchers said they made repeated visits in the interests of accuracy," reported The New York Times), and the Federal Aviation Administration, for studying "the physical measurements of 432 airline stewardesses, paying special attention to the 'length of the buttocks.'"[3]

Proxmire's critics claimed that some of his Golden Fleece awards went to basic science projects that led to important breakthroughs. In some circles his name has become a verb, meaning to unfairly obstruct scientific research for political gain, as in "the project has been proxmired". In 1987, Stewart Brand accused Proxmire of recklessly attacking legitimate research for the crass purpose of furthering his own political career, with gross indifference as to whether his assertions were true or false as well as the long-term effects on American science and technology policy.[26] Proxmire later apologized for several cancelled projects, including SETI.

It is widely believed that Proxmire gave the award to Edward F. Knipling for his study of the sex life of the screwworm fly, the results of which were used to create sterile screwworms that were released into the wild and eliminated this major cattle parasite from North and Central America and reducing the cost of beef and dairy products across the globe.[27] However, there is no evidence for this claim in the archives of the Award held by the Wisconsin Historical Society.[28] Furthermore, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)-funded research on the sex life of the screwworm fly took place in the 1930s through 1950s,[29] long before the Golden Fleece era of the 1970s and 80s, when Proxmire largely targeted contemporary research. This is discussed further on the Golden Fleece Award page.

One winner of the Golden Fleece Award, Ronald Hutchinson, sued Proxmire for defamation in 1976. Proxmire claimed that his statements about Hutchinson's research were protected by the Speech or Debate Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that that clause does not immunize members of Congress from liability for defamatory statements made outside of formal congressional proceedings (Hutchinson v. Proxmire, 443 U.S. 111 (1979)). The case was eventually settled out of court.[30]

Personal life[edit]

In 1946, Proxmire married Elsie Stillman Rockefeller, a great-granddaughter of William Rockefeller, brother and partner of oil magnate John D. Rockefeller. They had two children, a son, Theodore, and a daughter, Elsie Stillman (Proxmire) Zwerner. Elsie Proxmire received an uncontested divorce in 1955.[3]

In 1956, Proxmire married Ellen Imogene Hodges Sawall, who brought two children of her own to the marriage. Together, the couple had two sons, one of whom died in infancy.

Known for his devotion to personal fitness, which included jogging and push-ups, Proxmire earned the moniker "Push Up". In 1973, he published a book about staying in shape, entitled You Can Do It: Senator Proxmire's Exercise, Diet and Relaxation Plan. After leaving Congress, Proxmire had an office in the Library of Congress.[3]

After a battle with Alzheimer's disease,[31] Proxmire died on December 15, 2005 in a nursing home in Sykesville, Maryland, where he had lived for more than four years.[3]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Walker, Don (12 December 2016). "Kohl makes farewell address to Senate". Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Retrieved 19 November 2016. 
  2. ^ Sykes, Jay G. (1972). Proxmire. Washington, DC: R. B. Luce. p. 15. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Severo, Richard. "William Proxmire, Maverick Democratic Senator From Wisconsin, Is Dead at 90", The New York Times, December 16, 2005. Accessed October 31, 2007. "The family was well-to-do, and he was sent to the Hill School in Pottstown, Pa., and then to Yale, where he was an English major."
  4. ^ Sykes, Jay G. (1972). Proxmire. Washington, DC: R. B. Luce. p. 23. 
  5. ^ Dorfman, Dan (July 15, 1974). "The Bottom Line: Proxmire vs. Banks". New York Magazine. New York, NY: NYM Corporation. p. 10. 
  6. ^ Current Biography Yearbook. 19. Bronx, NY: H. W. Wilson Company. 1958. p. 29. 
  7. ^ Tucker, Spencer C. (2011). The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War. I. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. p. 942. ISBN 978-1-85109-960-3. 
  8. ^ Moritz, Charles (1979). Current Biography Yearbook. Bronx, NY: H. W. Wilson Co. p. 333. 
  9. ^ Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau (1971). State of Wisconsin Blue Book. Madison, WI: Document Sales. p. 12. 
  10. ^ Bartrop, Paul Robert (2012). A Biographical Encyclopedia of Contemporary Genocide: Portraits of Evil and Good. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. p. 265. ISBN 978-0-313-38678-7. 
  11. ^ Sykes, Jay G. (1972). Proxmire. Washington, DC: R. B. Luce. p. 26. 
  12. ^ Sykes, Jay G. (1972). Proxmire. Washington, DC: R. B. Luce. p. 23. 
  13. ^ "Wisconsin News Notes: Madison - William Proxmire". Racine Journal-Times. Racine, WI. Associated Press. May 11, 1950. p. 13 – via Newspapers.com. (Subscription required (help)). 
  14. ^ Wisconsin Legislative Reference Library. The Wisconsin Blue Book 1952. Madison, State of Wisconsin, 1952, p. 43.
  15. ^ "Democrat Proxmire to Run for Governor". Sheboygan Press. Sheboygan, WI. United Press International. March 24, 1954. p. 1 – via Newspapers.com. (Subscription required (help)). 
  16. ^ Kaufman, Burton Ira (2006). The Carter Years. New York, NY: Facts on File, Inc. p. 384. ISBN 978-0-8160-5369-8. 
  17. ^ "Wisconsin: Running Scared". Time. August 26, 1957. Retrieved May 30, 2017. 
  18. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2013-10-06. Retrieved 2012-01-26. 
  19. ^ a b c d e Gershman, Gary P. (2008). The Legislative Branch of Federal Government: People, Process, and Politics. ABC-CLIO. p. 262. ISBN 9781851097128. 
  20. ^ Franklin, Mary Beth (October 13, 1988). "Sen. Proxmire Retiring After 31 Years". Schenectady Gazette. UPI. Retrieved September 24, 2014. 
  21. ^ "Backward March", Time, October 27, 1967.
  22. ^ Proxmire, William (March 1978). "Letters to L-5" (PDF). L-5 News. 3 (3): 5. Retrieved 2008-08-28. 
  23. ^ Lovell, Robert (November 1977). "Letters to L-5" (PDF). L-5 News. 2 (11): 1. Retrieved 2008-08-26. It's the best argument yet for chopping NASA's funding to the bone. As Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee responsible for NASA's appropriations, I say not a penny for this nutty fantasy... 
  24. ^ H. Paul Shuch, ed. (2011). Searching for extraterrestrial intelligence : SETI past, present, and future. Berlin: Springer. ISBN 978-3-642-13195-0. 
  25. ^ Severo, Richard (16 December 2005). "William Proxmire, Maverick Democratic Senator From Wisconsin, Is Dead at 90". The New York Times. Retrieved 6 October 2014. 
  26. ^ Brand, Stewart (1987). The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT. New York: Viking. p. 141. 
  27. ^ Yager, M.; Emmett, M. (2012). "How worms' sex behavior can have a major impact on understanding human disease". Proceedings (Baylor University. Medical Center). 25 (4): 395–396. PMC 3448588Freely accessible. PMID 23077397. 
  28. ^ ""Golden Fleece Awards, 1975-1987 | Turning Points in Wisconsin History". Wisconsinhistory.org. Retrieved October 3, 2016. 
  29. ^ "1930s · STOP Screwworms: Selections from the Screwworm Eradication Collection · Special Collections Exhibits". Nal.usda.gov. Retrieved October 3, 2016. 
  30. ^ The New York Times, August 28, 1987.
  31. ^ "Alzheimer's Disease Strikes Ex-Senator". The New York Times, March 16, 1998.

External links[edit]

Party political offices
Preceded by
Carl W. Thompson
Democratic nominee for Governor of Wisconsin
1952, 1954, 1956
Succeeded by
Gaylord Nelson
Preceded by
Thomas E. Fairchild
Democratic nominee for U.S. Senator from Wisconsin
(Class 1)

1957, 1958, 1964, 1970, 1976, 1982
Succeeded by
Herb Kohl
Title last held by
Howard Baker, George H. W. Bush, Peter Dominick, Gerald Ford, Robert Griffin, Thomas Kuchel, Mel Laird, Bob Mathias, George Murphy, Dick Poff, Chuck Percy, Al Quie, Charlotte Reid, Hugh Scott, Bill Steiger, John Tower
Response to the State of the Union address
Served alongside: Donald Fraser, Scoop Jackson, Mike Mansfield, John McCormack, Patsy Mink, Ed Muskie
Succeeded by
Mike Mansfield
Preceded by
Mike Mansfield
Response to the State of the Union address
Served alongside: Carl Albert, Lloyd Bentsen, Hale Boggs, John Brademas, Frank Church, Thomas Eagleton, Martha Griffiths, John Melcher, Ralph Metcalfe, Leonor Sullivan
Title next held by
Mike Mansfield
U.S. Senate
Preceded by
Joseph McCarthy
U.S. Senator (Class 1) from Wisconsin
Served alongside: Alexander Wiley, Gaylord Nelson, Bob Kasten
Succeeded by
Herb Kohl
Preceded by
John Sparkman
Chair of the Senate Banking Committee
Succeeded by
Jake Garn
Preceded by
Jake Garn
Chair of the Senate Banking Committee
Succeeded by
Donald W. Riegle Jr.