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William Proxmire

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William Proxmire

William Proxmire
United States Senator
from Wisconsin
In office
August 28, 1957 – January 3, 1989
Preceded by Joseph McCarthy
Succeeded by Herb Kohl
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.
Nationality American
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Elsie Rockefeller (1946–1955; divorced)
Ellen Hodges Sawall (1956–2005; his death)
Religion United Church of Christ

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.


  • Early life 1
  • Legislative career 2
    • Golden Fleece Award 2.1
  • Personal life 3
  • Bibliography 4
  • See also 5
  • Notes 6
  • External links 7

Early life

Proxmire graduated from The Hill School (in Pottstown, Pennsylvania) in 1933,[1] Yale University in 1938, Harvard Business School in 1940, and Harvard Graduate School of Public Administration in 1948.[1]

During World War II he served as a member of the Military Intelligence Service. After getting his second master's degree, 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.[1]

Legislative career

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 1952,[2] and was an unsuccessful candidate for Governor of Wisconsin in 1952, 1954 and 1956. 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.[3] He paid no homage to his predecessor in the Senate, stating that McCarthy was a "disgrace to Wisconsin, to the Senate, and to America".[4] 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.[5]

Proxmire holds the U.S. Senate record for consecutive roll call votes cast: 10,252 between April 20, 1966 and October 18, 1988.[5] In doing so, he surpassed the previous record of 2,941 which was held by Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine.[6]

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.[1]

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.[5] 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.[5] Despite his support of budgetary restraint in other areas, he regularly sided with dairy interests and was a proponent of dairy price supports.[7][8]

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.[1]

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.[9] 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".[10] 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.[11] 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) and the novel Fallen Angels (1991), written by Larry Niven, were directed against the senator.

He refused to accept reimbursements for travel expenses related to his Senate duties.[12]

Golden Fleece Award

Proxmire was noted for issuing his Golden Fleece Award.,[5] which was presented monthly between 1975 and 1988, in order to focus media attention on projects Proximire viewed as self-serving and wasteful of taxpayer dollars.[1] 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.[1] 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.'"[1]

Proxmire's critics claimed that some of his 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.[13] Proxmire later apologized for several cancelled projects, including SETI.

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.[14]

Personal life

In 1946, Proxmire married Elsie Rockefeller, a great-granddaughter of William Rockefeller, brother and partner of oil magnate John D. Rockefeller. They had two children, a son and a daughter. Elsie Proxmire received an uncontested divorce in 1955.[1] She later married Miles J. McMillin, who had worked with Proxmire as the editor and publisher of The Capital Times. In December 1982, McMillin, suffering from cancer, shot to death Elsie Rockefeller and took his own life.[15]

In 1956, Proxmire married Ellen 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.[1]

After a battle with Alzheimer's disease,[16] Proxmire died in a nursing home, where he had lived for more than four years, in Sykesville, Maryland, on December 15, 2005, aged 90.[1]


  • Can Small Business Survive? H. Regnery Co., 1964. ISBN 0-405-11477-X
  • (with Paul H. Douglas) Report from Wasteland; America's Military-Industrial Complex. Praeger Publishing, 1970
  • Uncle Sam – The Last of the Bigtime Spenders. Simon & Schuster, 1972. ISBN 0-671-21432-2
  • You Can Do It!: Senator Proxmire's Exercise, Diet and Relaxation Plan. Simon & Schuster, 1973. ISBN 0-671-21576-0
  • Can Congress Control Spending? American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, Washington DC, 1973. ISBN 0-8447-2039-9
  • The Fleecing of America. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1980. ISBN 0-395-29133-X
  • Your Joy Ride to Health. Proxmire Publishing Co. 1994. ISBN 0-9637988-2-0

See also


  1. ^ 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."
  2. ^ 'The Wisconsin Blue Book, 1952,' p. 43, Biographical Sketch of William Proxmire, p. 43
  3. ^ "WISCONSIN: Running Scared," Time Magazine, August 26, 1957
  4. ^
  5. ^ a b c d e Gershman, Gary P. (2008). The Legislative Branch of Federal Government: People, Process, and Politics.  
  6. ^ Franklin, Mary Beth (October 13, 1988). "Sen. Proxmire Retiring After 31 Years".  
  7. ^ "Backward March", Time magazine, October 27, 1967.
  8. ^ Adam Bernstein quoted in Biography: William Proxmire,
  9. ^ Proxmire, William (March 1978). "Letters to L-5" (PDF). L-5 News 3 (3): 5. Retrieved 2008-08-28. 
  10. ^ 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... 
  11. ^ H. Paul Shuch, ed. (2011). Searching for extraterrestrial intelligence : SETI past, present, and future. Berlin: Springer.  
  12. ^ Severo, Richard (16 December 2005). "William Proxmire, Maverick Democratic Senator From Wisconsin, Is Dead at 90". New York Times. Retrieved 6 October 2014. 
  13. ^ Stewart Brand, The Media Lab, Inventing the Future at MIT (New York: Viking, 1987), 141.
  14. ^ New York Times, August 28, 1987.
  15. ^ Wife of Former Editor Dies of Gunshot Wound The New York Times, December 24, 1982.
  16. ^ Alzheimer's Disease Strikes Ex-Senator The New York Times, March 16, 1998.

External links

  • William Proxmire at the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress
  • William Proxmire, Wisconsin Historical Society
  • Appearances on C-SPAN
  • Severo, Richard (December 16, 2005). "William Proxmire, Maverick Democratic Senator From Wisconsin, Is Dead at 90". The New York Times. 
  • "As senator, a tenacious Proxmire had a good run" – The Boston Globe
  • Taxpayers for Common Sense, a non-partisan budget watchdog, lists Sen. William Proxmire's top 10 Golden Fleece Awards from 1975 to 1988
  • William Proxmire at Find a Grave
United States Senate
Preceded by
Joseph R. McCarthy
U.S. Senator (Class 1) from Wisconsin
Served alongside: Alexander Wiley, Gaylord Nelson, Bob Kasten
Succeeded by
Herb Kohl
Political offices
Preceded by
John Sparkman
Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee
Succeeded by
Jake Garn
Preceded by
Jake Garn
Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee
Succeeded by
Donald W. Riegle, Jr.
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