William Proxmire Papers, 1938-2004 (bulk 1957-1980)


Senator Edward William Proxmire was born in Lake Forest, Illinois, on November 11, 1915. He attended local public schools, the Hill School in Pennsylvania, and received a B.A. from Yale University in 1938 where he was also a varsity athlete. In 1940 he earned an MBA from Harvard University. During World War II Proxmire served in the Military Intelligence Service. He returned to Harvard after the war to study for a degree in public administration, which he completed in 1948. Proxmire so impressed the Harvard faculty that he was asked to become a political science instructor.

In 1949 Proxmire relocated to Madison, Wisconsin in order to launch a political career. Supporting himself as a farm implement dealer, Waterloo printing company owner, Capital Times reporter, and salesman and radio commentator for the Union Labor News and, with financial help from his family and in-laws, over the next eight years Proxmire essentially devoted himself to winning elective office. His first campaign was an upset victory in 1950 in a race for a seat in the Wisconsin Assembly. This initial campaign was marked by the same personal approach and limited financial expenditure that were to characterize all of his later campaigns. In 1952 Proxmire chose not to run for reelection but instead to run for governor on the Democratic ticket. Although Wisconsin's Democratic electorate offered little prospect for success, Proxmire was willing to fill out the ticket in order to win name recognition. As was expected, Proxmire did not do well against the incumbent Walter Kohler Jr., but he was determined to try again. In 1954 Proxmire defeated James Doyle, the preferred candidate of the Democratic Party leadership, before losing again to Kohler. The narrower margin of defeat persuaded Proxmire to try again, but he was defeated the third time by Vernon Thomson in 1956.

In 1957 Proxmire was victorious in a hotly-contested special election to fill the U.S. Senate seat formerly occupied by Joseph R. McCarthy. This was a landmark victory, not only because it began Proxmire's own career in the Senate, but because it also marked the first statewide success of Wisconsin's newly revitalized Democratic Party. The unexpectedness of his victory earned Proxmire unusual media attention for a first term senator. Because the term to which he was elected ended in 1958, Proxmire was forced to begin running for reelection almost immediately after being sworn in. Proxmire was reelected in 1958, and went on to overwhelming personal victories in 1964, 1970, 1976, and 1982. In 1988 he chose not to run again. Proxmire's victory margins are even more of a testament to his personal popularity because he consistently spent little on his campaigns.

Proxmire was perhaps best known to the public for his independent political style and his opposition to wasteful government spending. During the 1960s he uncovered and drew public attention to numerous examples of waste and mismanagement with regard to Pentagon spending, which, thanks to his efforts, led to increased congressional oversight of defense appropriations. Particular Proxmire targets were the Supersonic Transport (SST), the C-5A transport, and NASA. Proxmire considered his defeat of the SST to be one of his major accomplishments. In 1975 Proxmire turned his attention to general government waste with the institution of his “Golden Fleece” awards.

The monthly fleece awards, that often drew attention to apparently ridiculous government spending, and his well publicized hair transplants and penchant for physical fitness sometimes overshadowed Proxmire's more substantial accomplishments. As a member and chair of the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee his expertise and leadership contributed to the 1980 bank deregulation act, the truth in lending act, the fair credit reporting act of 1971, and other consumer reforms. Fulfilling a resolution made in 1967, Proxmire also contributed to the Senate ratification of the international Genocide Treaty. Proxmire was also a long-serving member of the powerful Appropriations and Joint Economic committees.

After retiring from the Senate, Proxmire continued to write and speak on issues related to the national economy and physical fitness. In 1998 he announced that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease. He died in 2005.