Book Review by Tom Nelson — Proxmire: Bulldog of the Senate (Jonathan Kasparek)
Growing up I didn’t want to be a Green Bay Packer or a Milwaukee Brewer; I wanted to be a Bill Proxmire. Proxmire was the hardest working U.S. Senator in history. I’d happily make the argument, but Jonathan Kasparek did it for me in his recent book, Proxmire: Bulldog of the Senate.
Prox, as he was affectionately known, was a talented man and he could have chosen any career and dominated the field. But, he chose politics.
He came of age during the New Deal. It was a brave new world. The Great Depression had brought the country to its knees. But only one party rose to the occasion. Proxmire saw the Democratic party as the party that solved problems and didn’t just make up excuses for “why nothing ought to be done.”
He couldn’t run for office in his hometown of Lake Forest, Illinois because it was a Republican stronghold. He’d have to go elsewhere. He chose Wisconsin and took a job at Madison’s Capital Times as a reporter in 1949. But before he found the bathrooms, he was off and running for the state Assembly, knocking off an incumbent the following year.
Proxmire quickly established his bona fides as an expert on tax policy, a field of interest nurtured from his time at Harvard Business School. After three tries at the governor’s office (1952, 1954, 1956) he took one more shot at office, running for the late Joe McCarthy’s Senate seat in a special election. He won.
As senator, Prox was widely known for his golden fleece award in which he highlighted — or rather, pulled down the pants of — a federal agency that wasted money, like the unsuspecting sociologist who successfully applied for a federal grant to study the way people fall in love.
He was also revered for his grassroots campaigning. He shook millions of hands. No joke. By his last re-election, most folks had shaken his hand at least once according to Kasparek.
Proxmire was the ultimate polymath. He learned the ins and outs of seemingly every piece of legislation ranging from bankruptcy law and lending practices to dairy pricing systems to the UN Convention on Genocide. He rarely delegated tasks. He did his own legislative research, wrote his own speeches and press releases and often did his own constituent casework.
Like any good biographer, Kasparek does well addressing the human side of his subject. What I found fascinating about Proxmire were his ethical lapses despite his squeaky clean persona.
Once, he put too many staff on his payroll, nearly 70 more than that of the average Senate office. Another time he hired a full-time student as a full-time employee. (That amounted to a scandal in 1963, Wisconsin.) And then there was the time Proxmire went a little too far with a golden fleece award and the fleecer sued him, taking him all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court where the Court ruled in favor of the recipient and Prox had to pay $140,000 in attorney and settlement fees.
Truth be told he probably could have survived those incidents. Indeed, his strengths outweighed his weaknesses and it wasn’t like any opponent was going to match him handshake-for-handshake.
But to him, those oversights and shortcuts were significant. He made sure full reparations were made — and he did so out of his own pocket even though he couldn’t afford it — because in those days you could not put a price on a man’s name. In that way, it didn’t matter so much what others thought of him but what he thought of himself; what he knew to be the difference between right and wrong, no matter the offense.
Sure wish there were more Proxmires today.