William Proxmire, Crusader Against Government Waste

Former Wisconsin Sen. William Proxmire died Thursday at the age of 90. Alex Chadwick speaks with NPR political editor Ken Rudin about the former Democratic lawmaker, who was known as a crusader against government waste.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, the final episodes of "Chappelle's Show." Where are they, and when will you see them?

First, this. One of the great characters of American political history has died. William Proxmire was a Democratic senator from Wisconsin for more than 30 years. You may recall his monthly Golden Fleece Awards, in which he spotlighted what he thought were frivolous uses of taxpayer dollars. He used to rail against what he viewed as the corrupt political system.

(Soundbite of previous interview)

Senator WILLIAM PROXMIRE (Democrat, Wisconsin): `Everybody plays the game.' That's one of the oldest alibis for lacking integrity that there is. `Everybody does it, so why shouldn't I do it? Obviously, I'm going to gain an advantage by doing it, so I'm going to go along with the rest of the people. That's the way the game is played. You got to play by the rules.' Well, you don't have to play by the rules.

CHADWICK: And he didn't. We're joined from Washington by NPR political editor Ken Rudin.

Ken, one hardly knows where to begin with Senator Proxmire, but let's just say the Golden Fleece Awards, because he got a lot of mileage out of that.

KEN RUDIN reporting:

He did, Alex. And I guess, as you say, he's best known for that. That's the awards that he would give out, as you say, every month. He said it was for the biggest or the most ridiculous or most ironic example of government waste. And, you know, Proxmire always talked about protecting the consumers and fighting government waste. And my two favorite examples--I always remember this--one was there was $102,000 study to see if drunken fish were more aggressive than sober fish. Another one was a $27,000 study on why inmates wanted to escape from prison. So Proxmire railed against that. A lot of people said he was, you know, a publicity hound, but you know something? He touched a nerve of the American people.

CHADWICK: He did. He had this real maverick streak in him, and he did all kinds of things that were odd. You know, he holds the record, I think, for the most consecutive roll call votes in the Senate, doesn't he?

RUDIN: That is correct, from 1966 to 1985. He walked--or, actually, he ran every day five miles from his home to Capitol Hill. I mean, he was famous for his hair transplants, his hair plugs. He had a face-lift. I mean, you know, the guy was no Robert Redford, but I mean, he was somebody who was beloved at home. But to say that he was not popular among his colleagues is an understatement; he was actually disliked by many members.

A quick, quick story. You know, he was elected to the Senate in 1957 following the death of Joseph McCarthy in Wisconsin; first Democrat in a long time elected to the Senate. One of his fir--he tried to get on the Senate Finance Committee, but Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson wouldn't appoint him. Proxmire gets up on the floor on the Senate, attacks Lyndon Johnson and House Speaker Sam Rayburn--I mean, nobody did that in the 1950s--and basically calling it, you know, an autocratic Congress. So he spoke his mind from day one, he made a lot of enemies and he never backed down.

CHADWICK: He never did. You know, he did become this figure of public integrity and there can be integrity in politics. He made a lot of that. But that kind of thing, when you're in the club of the US Senate--it goes over with the voters terrifically, but the other senators, they don't like it that much.

RUDIN: Right. And as a matter of fact, there was one poll that came out in, like, 1963, '64 that called him the fourth least popular of among all the senators, and it really hurt him. But you know, I mean, he made a car--he made a point of being an iconoclast and a maverick. His last time he ran for re-election, in 1982, he paid--he spent $145.10 on his re-election campaign, which he won with 60 or 70 percent plus. I think right now they pay $145--they spend $145 per minute in current campaigns. It's obviously a different era.

CHADWICK: Well, is there an heir to Proxmire or the kind of person that Bill Proxmire was in the Senate? I mean, I think he actually did inspire young people to go into politics because he made it look like a good business.

RUDIN: He did. You know, he's always said that politics is his life, but he was all over the map. It wasn't that liberals liked him or conservatives liked him, because as a liberal he fought hard for environmental laws and civil rights laws, but he was a hawk on Vietnam throughout Lyndon Johnson's presidency. He didn't become an opponent of the war until 1970, which was late for a lot of Democrats. If you look at today's Senate, maybe you look at a John McCain, who is not the most popular guy among his fellow Republicans and his fellow conservatives. But McCain has also touched a nerve that if you look at national polls, he may be the most popular Republican in the country. You know, coming from Wisconsin, which has always been an independent state, you had Robert La Follette, who was in independent voice in the early 20th century. You have Russell Feingold now, the only senator who voted against the Patriot Act. So Wisconsin seems to put out these kinds of mavericks.

CHADWICK: Ken Rudin is NPR political editor. He writes the column Political Junkie at npr.org. This week, it features an obituary and memories about another senator who's died recently, Eugene McCarthy.

Ken, thank you.

RUDIN: Thanks a lot, Alex.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. More in a moment from DAY TO DAY.

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