Tom Still column No. 75-05
“Proxmire’s legacies reflect contradictions in our political values”
By Tom Still
MADISON – He shook half the hands in Wisconsin, but he was a loner who few people knew well.
He was one of the architects of the modern Democratic Party in Wisconsin, but he never bought into liberal doctrine about abortion or school busing.
He was the son of a well-to-do physician, but forever pitched himself as a populist.
He held degrees from Yale and Harvard, but through his trademark “Golden Fleece Awards,” he came to be known as something of an anti-intellectual, often lampooning the work of researchers.
William Proxmire, who died last week at 90, was a man of many contradictions. Defeated three times in the 1950s in campaigns for governor, Proxmire kept on walking, talking and hand-shaking his way across Wisconsin until he was finally elected U.S. senator in 1957. He then became unbeatable, winning re-election five times and serving a combined 32 years, all without spending more than a few thousand bucks on all of his campaigns combined.
As a former reporter and editorial writer, I remember “Prox” popping into the newsroom unannounced, without an entourage, to sit down and talk about the issues of the day. Most of the time, if one asked who else in the Senate was working with him to get a bill passed, the answer was unclear or clearly no one. Almost always, however, the conversation would get around to deficit spending (another contradiction; he always defended dairy subsidies) or his lonely campaign to force the U.S. Senate to sign an international treaty against genocide.
If you attended a University of Wisconsin football game, you would likely see Proxmire outside pumping hands – even in a non-election year. If you emerged from a plant gate on a Friday afternoon, you might encounter Proxmire, his arm outstretched as if to congratulate you for a job well done.
Proxmire was a politician who defined Wisconsin in many ways. He was fundamentally frugal, a bit iconoclastic in his political views and dealings, yet a friend to all he met. And while he was not above gimmicks – the Golden Fleece Award was one of the longest-running headline grabbers in Washington – it was no stunt when he ran campaigns on the cheap. Proxmire truly believed that elections were best waged on the street and through broad public forums, such as the press. He would show up anywhere, at virtually any time, to talk about issues with citizens and journalists, and there need not be an election on the calendar.
Proxmire’s legacies, good and otherwise, stick with us today. Wisconsin is a state that longs for a return to politics as they were (or, at least, as we remember them). We say we want low-cost campaigns and Main Street elections, but most of us are either too busy or too disconnected to engage at a level that would allow either to happen. We aspire to trust our politicians, but we are only now emerging from a legislative scandal that resulted in jail time for some prominent officials and continuing prosecutions of others.
Proxmire also defines our mixed feelings about what we expect from government. He was a deficit hawk, but he was rarely interested in forming partnerships to go beyond the anecdotal or to set priorities.
Proxmire was also so busy burning other people’s bacon that he never brought home any of his own. To this day, Wisconsin ranks among the bottom five states in return on federal dollars, and Proxmire deserves some of the blame for that. Ironically, a field he often castigated – academic research – is one of the few in which Wisconsin gets a fair share of the tax dollars it sends to Washington.
Bill Proxmire helped define a generation of Wisconsin politics. He was honest, independent and close to the people. So close, in fact, that he also represented our contradictions.
Still is the president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the WisconsinState Journal.