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William Proxmire

U.S. Senator known for his Golden Fleece Awards

William Proxmire

Edward William Proxmire was born in Lake Forest, Illinois, on November 11, 1915, the son of Dr. Theodore Proxmire and the former Adele Flanigan. He had an older brother and a younger sister. He was educated in the Lake Forest public schools and then the private Hill School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, graduated from Yale University in 1948, and received a master's degree from the Harvard Business School in 1940. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Proxmire enlisted in the Army as a private and was assigned to counterintelligence; he was discharged as a First Lieutenant in 1946. In 1948 he earned his second master's degree at Harvard (this one in public administration), after which he moved to Madison, Wisconsin, to be a reporter for The Capital Times. He was fired by the newspaper after seven months, but chose to stay in Wisconsin.

Proxmire entered politics by running for the Wisconsin State Assembly in 1950. He won by defeating a six-term incumbent in the Democratic primary and trouncing his Republican opponent in the general election, and served from 1951 to 1952. He was an unsuccessful candidate for Governor of Wisconsin in 1952, 1954, and 1956, but won a special election on August 27, 1957, to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by the death of Joseph R. McCarthy. Reelected in 1958, 1964, 1970, 1976, and 1982, he served from August 28, 1957, to January 3, 1989.

Vice-President Richard Nixon swears in Proxmire as the new Senator from Wisconsin, as Proxmire's wife looks on.
Proxmire being sworn in as the new Senator from Wisconsin

As a Senator Proxmire was frequently at odds not just with Republicans but also with members of his own party. During his first term he clashed with Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson because he thought Johnson was compromising too much on civil rights legislation. He also did not like Johnson's support of tax breaks for the oil industry. An ardent advocate for consumer protection laws, his most notable achievement in that area was the 1968 Consumer Credit Protection Act, known as the Truth in Lending Act, requiring lenders to disclose interest rates and finance charges owed to them by borrowers. 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.

Federal spending is what most frequently put Proxmire at odds with his colleagues, especially after he debuted his Golden Fleece Awards in 1975. Handed out monthly, the "ceremony" was a speech on the Senate floor that highlighted "the biggest or most ridiculous or most ironic example of government waste." He gave the Army Corps of Engineers the 1976 award of the year for "the worst record of cost overruns in the entire federal government -- 47 percent of Corps current projects had cost overruns of 100 percent or more." Speaking of the National Science Foundation's grant on falling in love, Proxmire said such a study was better left to "poets and mystics, to Irving Berlin, to thousands of high school and college bull sessions." The National Institute for Mental Health "earned" a Golden Gleece Award for spending $97,000 to study, among other things, what went on in a Peruvian brothel, and the Federal Aviation Administration was "rewarded" 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 Golden Fleece "winners" 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.

Proxmire's aversion to unnecessary spending also applied to his personal life. Throughout his career, he wore inexpensive suits, paid for his own plane trips, and spent less than $200 on his campaigns, with some of that money used to buy stamps to return donations sent by constituents.

Proxmire was not a candidate for re-election in 1988. He maintained a small office in the Library of Congress until Alzheimer's forced him to withdraw from public life, and died at the Copper Ridge care facility in Sykesville, Maryland, on December 15, 2005.


Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
New York Times

See Also

Richard Nixon
Lyndon Johnson

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The Robinson Library >> United States >> 1961-2001 > Biography, A-Z

This page was last updated on September 14, 2018.