Yesterday’s big news was about a possible upset in the Massachusetts special election to fill Ted Kennedy’s vacancy. A political earthquake similar to this happened before. Democrats won the 1957 special election to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI). The GOP candidate appeared to have many advantages going into the election. He was undefeated former Gov. Walter J. Kohler (1950-1956) who had a high approval rating. The Democrats nominated William Proxmire who had only served one term in the state legislature (1950-1952), and had lost statewide campaigns in 1952, 1954 and 1956.
Kohler significantly outspent Proxmire, but the deepening economic recession was a big advantage for the Democrat. Proxmire was skilled at obtaining free publicity and was even able to use previous defeats to his advantage. The Democratic candidate said: “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 graduated from Yale University in 1938, and enlisted as an Army private in the days after Pearl Harbor. He was discharged in1946 as a first lieutenant. He earned his MBA from Harvard two years later and stayed on campus to complete a degree in public administration.
The Proxmire seat remains in Democratic hands today, but unfortunately few members of his party are similar to the late Wisconsin Senator.
He served from 1957 to 1988, and was the original Porkbuster. He was known for his devotion to curbing governmental waste and mismanagement, and beginning in 1975 he issued a monthly Golden Fleece Award. The award was bestowed on the most “wasteful, ridiculous or ironic use of the taxpayers’ money.” He also issued merit awards for successful actions of government agencies which resulted in increased efficiency. A few examples of Golden Fleece Awards are:
* The National Science Foundation for spending $84,000 to learn why people fall 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 which spent $97,000 to study what happened in houses of prostitution. The researchers said they made repeated visits in the interests of accuracy.
* The Federal Aviation Administration 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.
* The Justice Department for spending $27,000 to determine why prisoners wanted to get out of jail.
* The Department of Defense for spending $3,000 to determine if people in the military should carry umbrellas in the rain. He also brought attention to the $7,000 coffeepot, the $400 hammer and the $792 doormat.
* The Department of Agriculture for spending $100,000 to study whether fish that had consumed tequila were more belligerent than fish that had stuck with gin.
Another Proxmire campaign was to cut back on the use of government limousines. In testimony before the House Committee on Government Operations he said “The limousine is the ultimate ego trip, the supreme sign of success. It shouts: “Hey, this guy is really and truly Mr. Big.”
President Jimmy Carter took his advice and used a Town Car instead of a limousine. Carter also accepted Proxmire’s recommendation and surprised everyone by walking down Pennsylvania Avenue after his Inauguration.
Proxmire opposed new federal spending even when it was for his state. He deleted money for a lake improvement project in LaFarge by saying it was wasteful. The lake then became a mudhole, and a sign was erected calling it Lake Proxmire. Many of the financial problems which are being encountered by states and cities today were pointed out by Proxmire decades ago. This was especially true when he served as Chairman of the Banking Committee when it considered the $2.3 billion federal loan guarantee to New York City (which was then on the brink of bankruptcy).
Proxmire publicly criticized Mayor Beame and the city as profligate, and excoriated the City Council for seeking a 50 percent pay raise during a financial crisis. More importantly, he also said municipal workers made too much money and their pensions benefits should be revised because they were far better than the private sector. Few Democratic lawmakers would say that today.
Proxmire was a liberal and his foreign policy and national security views were misguided. His opposition to the C-5A transport, the Patriot missile, the F-16 and the F-18 fighter jets were not wise. Nevertheless, he deserves tremendous credit for efforts to improve governmental management.
Government waste, excessive spending and budget deficits were the prime targets of his books; “Report from the Wasteland” (1970), “Uncle Sam: The Last of the Bigtime Spenders,” (1972), and “The Fleecing of America” (1980). In each of his last two Senate campaigns, Proxmire refused to take any contributions and spent less than $200 out of his own pocket.
Proxmire retired from the Senate in 1988 after 32 years of service. He said, “I have spent my career trying to get Congressmen to spend the people’s money as if it were their own. But I have failed.” He served as Honorary Chair of the Advisory Board of Taxpayers for Common Sense. Suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, Proxmire died on December 15, 2005 after spending four years in a Maryland nursing home.
His name continues to be heard in Wisconsin politics. Former Rep. Mark W. Neumann (R-WI) is now running for Governor. Similar to Proxmire, Neumann frustrated many of his colleagues with his pledge not to vote for any bill which increased the deficit. Neumann believes tax-cutting is not enough, and as a lawmaker he advocated paying down the accumulated national debt and reducing the size of government. His campaign is featuring this 1995 letter the then Congressman received from Proxmire:
“Congratulations on your courage and conviction… I have rarely been so impressed by any Member of Congress as I was by your ‘flat-out act of conscience.’ Yours was truly a class act. Wisconsin should be very proud of you.”
PHOTO: Triumphant Democrats march to the State Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin on August 27, 1957 as three time loser William Proxmire easily wins the special election caused by the death of Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI). Proxmire’s victory sent shock waves through the political world and a year later Democrats would win an unprecedented 13 seats in the U.S. Senate and catapult into the lead for the 1960 presidential election. Democrats would also win both 1959 Senate elections in the new state of Alaska, and the results were split in the new state of Hawaii. The results were an aggregate gain of 16 seats for the Democrats and a party balance of 65-35. Democrats gained three open seats in California, Indiana, and New Jersey, and defeated ten Republican incumbents: William C. Revercomb (WV), John D. Hoblitzell, Jr. (WV), John W. Bricker (OH), Edward Thye (MN), William A. Purtell (CT), Frederick G. Payne (ME), Charles E. Potter (MI), Arthur V. Watkins (UT), Frank A. Barrett (WY) and George W. Malone (NV).