Former Wisconsin Sen. William Proxmire Dies Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI) talks about the life of former Wisconsin Sen. William Proxmire, the political maverick who became Congress' leading scourge of big spending and government waste. Proxmire died Thursday at the age of 90.

Former Wisconsin Sen. William Proxmire Dies

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NEAL CONAN, host:

We learned today of the death of former Senator William Proxmire. He passed away this morning at the age of 90. The maverick Wisconsin Democrat won a special election in 1957 following the death of Joseph McCarthy, and he served in the United States Senate until 1989. He was best known for his monthly Golden Fleece Awards which lampooned the most egregious examples of wasteful government spending. Joining us now to talk about the life and legacy of Senator Proxmire is John Nichols, editor of The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin. He's at the studios of member station WHA in Madison.

Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. JOHN NICHOLS (The Capital Times): It's a great pleasure to be on with you, Neal.

CONAN: I understand William Proxmire actually worked at a reporter at The Capital Times once upon a time.

Mr. NICHOLS: Yes, in about 1950. He wasn't the best reporter though. He seemed to be a lot more interested in getting his political opinion into the stories than actually reporting, so he was rather quickly shuffled off to the Wisconsin Legislature where he won a seat while still working as a reporter.

CONAN: It's difficult to imagine two senators more different than Joe McCarthy and William Proxmire.

Mr. NICHOLS: In a sense you're right, but not entirely. They were both mavericks and the odd thing was that just as McCarthy at least in the quite councils of the Republican Party embarrassed his own party, Proxmire often embarrassed his own party. He was very willing to challenge Democratic presidents and Democratic Senate leaders particularly on government spending issues.

CONAN: We're talking about the late Senator William Proxmire, who died earlier today.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Senator Proxmire was a bear on spending, including spending on his own political campaigns.

Mr. NICHOLS: Well, that's the best story of all. Bill Proxmire got elected initially in '57 with a relatively conventional campaign. He beat a millionaire, but he did get campaign contributions. But he hated fund-raising. And so very quickly he stopped accepting campaign contributions and his ran his last two US Senate campaigns in 1976 and 1982 against credible and well-financed Republican challengers by spending under $200 out of his own pocket in each campaign.

CONAN: He was not averse to the occasional political stunt, however.

Mr. NICHOLS: Oh, no. I think that Proxmire understood a dynamic of politics that I think is lost on a lot of folks today. They think the only way to run for office is to spend a lot of money on TV ads. Proxmire had a two-fold way of running for office. First off, he shook hands at astronomical rates. He was once in the Guinness Book of World Records for having shaken the most hands in a single day, something like 30,000 at a state fair. But the other thing he did was he took on the powers that be, and he was sure to send a press release out when he did it. The Golden Fleece Award was one of his tricks, if you will.

But the other thing he did is he never missed a roll-call vote and he made a big deal about letting people know that he was on the job, and he also would grab ahold of issues and never let go of them. He wanted the Senate to ratify a global treaty against genocide, and he started in 1967 giving a speech each day that the Senate was in session urging the ratification. He kept doing it until 1987; he had given more than 3,100 speeches when the Senate finally did the job.

CONAN: He was also an opponent of what he described as wasteful government spending, or pork, and I guess that's a lot of what the Golden Fleece Awards were about. But did he ever meet a milk-price support he didn't like?

Mr. NICHOLS: Well, of course not. He's a Wisconsinite and you understand that milk is essential. But you know, even on ag issues he could occasionally anger a constituent. But the fact of the matter was that Proxmire was first and foremost a good politician, and he knew who his constituents were, and frankly it was the diary farmers of Wisconsin who switched from their Republican sentiments, having been in many cases big backers of McCarthy, over to supporting this maverick Democrat.

Where he really went after the federal government, though, is in two areas. First off was military spending. He is the guy who started talking about those $600 toilet seats. And also in the area of science spending, and he sometimes was criticized for this because he would sometimes go after sort of broad, general science work that ultimately did yield something, but he could always find a good joke in it. His first--one...

CONAN: Right.

Mr. NICHOLS: ...of his first Golden Fleece Awards was for somebody who was studying how you fall in love.

CONAN: Well, joining us now is US Congressman Ron Kind, a Democrat from Wisconsin. He interned with Senator William Proxmire in the mid-1980s.

And, Congressman, very nice of you to be with us today.

Representative RON KIND (Democrat, Wisconsin): Neal, my pleasure.

CONAN: What's your fondest memory of Bill Proxmire?

Rep. KIND: I tell you there are so many. I mean, he was a political icon, just a legend in the state of Wisconsin. It was such an honor to, first of all, intern with him, but also an honor for me--when I was first elected to Congress to visit with him at the Library of Congress just to talk through a lot of ideas and give his suggestions and his take on the issues of the day. But I don't know if anyone's mentioned how fond he was of meeting people back home where he would be on the road constantly shaking hands throughout the state. Showing up where two or three gathered, it seemed, Bill Proxmire would be there. And because of it, the last couple of elections that he ran, he spent more money returning campaign contributions than he actually spent in his actual campaign, and I think we've seen the last of that era in light of modern campaigning and attack ads and everything else that goes on.

CONAN: We've mentioned the Golden Fleece Award, of course, but legislatively what do you see as Senator Proxmire's legacy?

Rep. KIND: Well, I understand you just talked about the anti-genocide treaty, and I got...

CONAN: Yeah.

Rep. KIND: ...to write many of those speeches as an intern for him, and he was like a pit bull. When it came to grabbing an issue that he felt there was a moral imperative to try to get done, he wouldn't let go, and for 19 years every day the Senate was in session he reminded his colleagues that there's a moral imperative for the leader of the free world to ratify this treaty against genocide. And he was, you know, flabbergasted that we weren't the first nation to do it rather than being one of the last nation's to. But he also raised the issue of the need to do more to stop nuclear proliferation throughout the world, which he felt would be the ultimate genocide against mankind. And he was talking about that before it became fashionable in Washington. But he was a maverick; he was well-respected; he ruffled feathers in Washington because of his convictions and principles. And I think that's why people back home in Wisconsin loved him so much.

CONAN: Ron Kind, thank you very much for being with us.

Rep. KIND: Thanks, Neal. My pleasure.

CONAN: Congressman Kind represents a district in Wisconsin. He interned with Senator William Proxmire in the mid-1980s and joined us from his office on Capitol Hill. And we'd like to thank you as well, John Nichols.

Mr. NICHOLS: It's a pleasure to be with you, and a pleasure to talk about the senator.

CONAN: John Nichols, editor of The Capital Times; joined us from the studios of member station WHA in Madison, Wisconsin.

Tomorrow it's "Science Friday." Guest host Joe Palca will be here. We'll see you Monday.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan.

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