His name is a blur in the headlines and only a faint blip on the radar screen scrutinizing Democratic presidential contenders. In an assemblage of cool, cautious men, Senator William Proxmire, Democrat of Wisconsin, stands out as a zealot, a Strom Thurmond of the left. In an age of instant, indelible branding by the media, his is a saga of redemption, a testament to the importance of being earnest. In the past thirteen years, he has moved up from being almost universally disdained in the Senate to a position in which he enjoys nearunanimous respect. And at least the amiable curiosity of passersby who see him jogging down Connecticut Avenue each morning.
In heat wave, hailstorm, or blizzard, every day he runs the 4.7 miles from his home in northwest Washington to the Capitol. Proxmire’s daily journey is surely metaphorical, for he has been engaged in a long-distance competition with some of the more durable American problems: the economy, housing, defense spending, and proposals like public funding of a supersonic transport. He is also trying to streak past public images of himself: a maverick dilettante and a rebel for any cause. Proxmire may now be pulling away from the shadow of his own reputation.
He may hope to follow the path of glory traced by an earlier crusader against waste in defense spending— Harry S Truman of Missouri, who made his Senate reputation investigating the government’s conduct of World War II mobilization. Proxmire is armed with a Spartan personality oddly coupled with an enormous passion for publicity. “I know he works hard,” says a sympathetic fellow senator, “but he likes to be rewarded. Ol’ Prox loves that ink.” Proxmire has indeed become a master navigator of the currents and doldrums of Washington publicity, conserving his more lurid revelations for Monday A.M.’S, weekends, national holidays, and other periods of lacunae in news from the Capitol.
Out of the leper colony
Although he now stands twentysixth in seniority among the one hundred senators, Proxmire still scrambles as though he barely had a toehold in the place, as though he were still in that half-ostracized status he held a decade ago. (Once, when he and fellow maverick ex-Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon squabbled over an appropriations bill, Senator Eugene J. McCarthy described the quarrel as “trouble in the leper colony.”) Time and work have been the cure for Proxmire, in the Senate if not throughout Washington. A House Democrat and a member of the Joint Economic Committee, of which Proxmire is vice chairman, concedes that “he knows his stuff, and I agree with him on many economic policies. But the Joint Economic Committee used to be widely respected as a bipartisan forum, and I resent the perversion of this committee into a personal vehicle for one of the cheapest demagogues in the United States. The Joint Economic Committee is no place to pursue defense contractors, even if his goals are noble, which I doubt, since I’ve never seen the public interest interfere with the direct personal interest of Bill Proxmire.” Defense contractors and their allies in the Pentagon also complain bitterly—but privately and vaguely—that Proxmire’s efforts are “weakening the military.” But Proxmire responds with both puritanical self-confidence and publicity-conscious naïveté that reducing the military budget would not only save taxes and fight inflation but “could mean a stronger, leaner, and tougher military establishment.”
In pursuing that object, Proxmire has introduced the phrase “cost overrun into the national lexicon, embarrassed whole battalions of generals and admirals, enraged the gentlemen of General Electric, Litton Industries, Lockheed, and other defense tycoons, embittered some of his colleagues in Congress, and earned the new and grudging respect of others. Proxmire’s hero, former Senator Paul H. Douglas of Illinois, once said, “A liberal need not be a wastrel.” Proxmire is out to document the case and in the process may shift liberal orthodoxy into a more conservative, cost-conscious direction.
“Military spending is simply out of control,” he says, “particularly in the procurement of weapons systems. It’s our job in Congress to bring it under control.” The cold-war climate of easy tolerance and patriotic awe of Pentagon programs has indeed bred a bizarre, Catch-22 menagerie of missiles, planes, and other weapons named for Greek gods, planets, birds, Indian tribes, arresting acronyms, and impressively enumerated signatures. But the names are less imposing than the final cost of the weapons or the speed with which their obsolescence surpasses their effectiveness. By Proxmire’s own count, the subcommittee of the Joint Economic Committee, which he chairs, has uncovered cost increases on thirty-eight weapons systems totaling almost $21 billion more than original cost estimates. One must be a jogging fan to sprint through the entire arsenal of folly uncovered by Proxmire, but to give some idea:
The Gama Goat is an ungainly looking army vehicle designed as a superjeep to traverse rough terrain and water. “It was originally estimated to cost $69.1 million,” says Proxmire. “It is now estimated to cost $439 million. In addition, it is now a 7.5 ton truck instead of a jeep-sized vehicle, yet its cargo-carrying capability remains the same.” His eyes widen and his voice rises, then drops in resignation as he adds, “Deliveries of the Gama Goat are also three years late, so far.”
The Cheyenne helicopter, bristling with armament and a new type of rotor blade, cost $204 million, considerably more than its estimated cost of $126 million. The craft turned out to be too heavy to fly and became one of those rare birds, a weapons system grounded by the Defense Department itself. But months after its production contract with the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation was canceled, according to Proxmire, “the Army has spent approximately $15 million on it. The money was paid to Lockheed for further research and development.”
By such mastery of harum-scarum statistics, Proxmire has won the attention of colleagues in Congress and weakened the Pentagon’s hold on the nation’s Treasury, imagination, and spirit. Planes that don’t fly, submarines that sink, rifles one must be a mechanic to operate, tanks that require a platoon of support troops - all were accepted as routine until the confluence of several antimilitarist trends created a demand for a champion of frugality in military spending. For all the talk of “cost effectiveness,” Robert McNamara did not achieve fool-proof methods of weapons procurement. The war in Indochina drastically reduced public faith in the omnipotence and omniscience of the American military. The Nixon Administration, in office only briefly and struggling with the problem of graceful extraction from Vietnam, decided to push forward with the procurement of an antiballistic-missile system, provoking a four-month debate in the Senate that ended in a one-vote victory for the missile and the Administration. For the Pentagon the triumph was indeed Pyrrhic, for the ABM vote marked the end of privileges provided the military by Congress during the 1960s: a blank checkbook and a free hand.
Senate opponents of the ABM credit part of their strength to Proxmire’s histrionic hearings on weapons systems, particularly that of the C-5A Galaxy, a giant air cargo plane manufactured by Lockheed. Proxmire had begun the hearings of his subcommittee as a Diogenes, wandering in the wastes of the Pentagon searching for an honest man. He found A. Ernest Fitzgerald, Deputy for Management Systems, Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force. Fitzgerald told Proxmire’s subcommittee that cost overruns on the C-5A amounted to almost $2 billion. Even in the highvolume Air Force trade, the figure seemed remarkable and drew attention to arguments against new weapons systems.
Honey and gall
Proxmire’s frequent glib litanies of dazzling statistics suggest to some of his fellow senators that he is a mechanical man. There is evidence of automatic response in the marvel of engineering that is Proxmire’s constant campaigning for re-election. He subscribes in spades to the late Estes Kefauver’s theory that you can’t beat a politician who shakes more than five hundred hands a day. Nearly every weekend he has trekked back to Wisconsin for handshaking tours at county fairs, city sidewalks, and football games. During noncampaign years early in a term of office, a time when the average senator feels politically immortal, Proxmire spends forty-eight of fifty-two weekends back home. According to John W. Kole of the Milwaukee Journal, Proxmire has shaken hands in Wisconsin more than 2.5 million times since 1957.
Much of Proxmire’s maverick reputation also has a programmed quality. Proxmire succeeded the late Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, who had followed Senator Robert La Follette. Wisconsin seems to demand independent, if not mercurial, views in a senator, and Proxmire has been more than obliging. Since he criticized Presidents Kennedy and Johnson when they were in the White House, it is not surprising to see Proxmire abandon his Democratic cohorts to defend President Nixon. Early in June this year, at the height of criticism of the President for the invasion of Cambodia, Proxmire told a commencement audience at Milton College in Wisconsin that “the President has been personally attacked. His motives and character have been assaulted cruelly and unfairly. In my view, Mr. Nixon made a tragic mistake in Cambodia. He was wrong. But the President is a decent and intelligent man. He is doing his honest best to end the Vietnam war as swiftly as he can.”
Proxmire has all but patented his potion of honey and gall in lubricating his way to acceptability in the Senate. His book Report from Wasteland: America’s Military-Industrial Complex (Praeger) has more heroes than villains: “The abilities ot Senators Richard B. Russell of Georgia and John Stennis of Mississippi are unsurpassed in the Senate. Men like Stuart Symington of Missouri and Henry M. Jackson of Washington and the Senate’s gentle lady, Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, have unequaled reputations among their colleagues for intelligence, industry and patriotism.” George Mahon ot Texas, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, is described as “a quiet, conservative, conscientious and hard-working member of Congress. Like John Stennis in the Senate, he is one of dozens of congressmen who receive little publicity but serve the country well.”
In choosing his enemies, Proxmire selects sitting ducks. The moguls of Lockheed, Boeing, and North American Rockwell are not beloved figures, any more than are the faceless bureaucrats and brass hats in the Pentagon. They are the trolls and dragons of Wasteland: “The disgraceful fact is that neither the contractors nor the Pentagon tells the truth about the cost of the weapons. They deliberately lie about the cost. They deceive Congress. They deceive the public. They purposely underestimate the cost of these weapons systems in order to get them established and to get Congress and the country committed to them.” They need, however, at least one Capitol Hill accomplice, and Proxmire provides him in Lucius Mendel Rivers (Democrat, South Carolina), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who does not share the Senate’s “sophisticated and at times critical attitude towards local pressures and Pentagon requests.” Rivers’ disdain for Proxmire is reciprocal but mostly unprintable.
Getting a reputation
Proxmire’s first brawl in Washington branded him as a carefree Quixote and gave him a reputation that almost ended his career. His experience illustrates how reputations are made in Washington, and it helps explain Proxmire’s windmill tendencies as well. August 27, 1957, was Lyndon B. Johnson’s forty-ninth birthday. On that night—Proxmire’s first election —he was called by his Majority Leader and told him, “Senator Johnson, I’m the best birthday present you ever had.” For a while, it was true. Proxmire was the fiftieth Democrat among ninety-six senators and strengthened Johnson and the Democrats in the Senate. The new senator was welcomed as a sign of the Texan’s bond with Northern liberals and rewarded with important committee assignments from the man who was at the height of his reputation as a parliamentary wizard. Washington was a dull political town in those late Eisenhower days, and for many journalistic admirers, Johnson filled the vacuum with his high-powered leadership of the Senate and his enshrinement of his friend Sam Rayburn’s motto, “If you want to get along, go along.” Johnson’s severest critics, Senators Paul Douglas of Illinois and Joseph Clark of Pennsylvania, were dismissed as lightweights. After a brief coma under the spell of the Johnson “treatment,” Proxmire emerged early in 1959 with an attack on the Senate floor against Johnson’s “oneman rule” of the Democrats. His boldness encouraged several of the fifteen new Democrats who had been elected in 1958, and the revolt against LBJ’s leadership hampered his 1960 campaign for the presidency. (Proxmire became a dose friend of Senators Douglas and Clark; his son is named Douglas Clark Proxmire.)
A subsequent poll taken by Pageant magazine among Washington reporters listed the rebel among “the five least effective senators.” The poll almost retired him. His opponent for re-election in 1964, Wilbur Renk, ran with the issue, arguing that Proxmire, for all his energy, was accomplishing little in Washington. Although Proxmire won by 112,000 votes, many in Wisconsin believe that he escaped defeat only on Lyndon Johnson’s coattails, as LBJ beat Barry Goldwater in Wisconsin by 300,000 votes. In 1970, Proxmire’s seat did not figure in the Nixon Administration’s plan to capture the Senate. As one of the President’s political handymen explained: “It wasn’t worth the money or effort to try and beat him. And, hell, he’s a damned attractive fellow to the people in Wisconsin.”
The 1964 campaign sobered Proxmire and made him think about cohabiting with the specialized processes of the Senate committee system. He resolved to be “more pragmatic” and was, defending LBJ’s conduct of the war in Vietnam long after his Democratic cohort from Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson, became an active Senate dove. Early in his career he was plagued by one of the highest staff turnover rates in the Senate because, former staff members assert, he was aloof and independent, failing to confide in assistants and speech writers. Now his staff of eighteen has reasonably stable tenure, and Proxmire says, “They make me look good. I’m really dependent on them for a great deal of research and original ideas.” His administrative assistant, Howard Shuman, did the same job for Douglas before the latter’s defeat in 1966 and says, “Both Douglas and Proxmire are such hardworking people that they make their staffs look good.”
The departure of Lyndon Johnson from the Senate also reduced Proxmire’s urge to be contrary. Majority Leader Mike Mansfield has, in effect, closed the Senate “club” and been less arbitrary in committee and floor assignments. Proxmire’s earlier reputation as a loner had its saving graces. Between 1964 and 1968, the Democratic Party was polarized into Kennedy and Johnson factions. Proxmire could not be considered a reliable member of either. During that time, he used his new-won trust and expertise to help realize a longtime dream of Douglas’, a “truth-inlending” law ordering retailers and other lenders to detail to borrowers the specific costs of credit.
In the Senate today, Proxmire receives surprisingly widespread respect —surprising because many of the senators themselves are surprised. “I thought he was just another wildeyed, simpleminded spender who resented the Pentagon because of its money,” says one Republican. “But, Lord, he’s done his homework, and he helps us understand these weapons.” A Democrat who’s known him a long time says, “He started moving slowly with that waste-in-the-Pentagon stuff. But events are catching up with him. It’s the same thing with the economy and housing. The things he’s been warning about are now talked of in crisis proportions. It shows you that even on a two-stringed instrument, you’re bound to make some music.” Bipartisan encomiums from liberals and conservatives prove that Proxmire has gained esteem in Washington, if not affection. He made the choice early to be respected rather than loved; in the Senate he is thoroughly pleasant, but does not engage in hail-fellow camaraderie. He shuns the capital’s social life.
Proxmire draws his Puritan work ethic from a German-Irish heritage and a comfortable Middle West background. His father, Dr. Theodore Proxmire, was a general practitioner in Lake Forest, Illinois, who “believed in working fourteen hours a day, seven days a week,” his son recalls. Young Proxmire went East to prep school, Hill School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, where he was voted “biggest grind” and “best dancer.” At Yale, he was welterweight boxing champion, then went to Harvard Business School and became a trainee in the J. P. Morgan Company— hardly typical training for a future firebrand.
World War II liberalized Proxmire and changed his mind about a business career. He served in the CIC— Counterintelligence Corps, or as he and his comrades-in-arms called it, “Christ, I’m confused.” This branch of the Army, supposedly its most efficient and self-critical, imbued him with strong feelings about the American military’s fallibility. It was a view of the innards of military bureaucracy denied to Mendel Rivers, John Stennis, and other nonveterans. Determined to pursue politics, Proxmire returned to Harvard for a degree in public administration, then chose a place to live almost solely on the basis of political opportunities offered newcomers. Wisconsin seemed openminded and desperate for Democrats. Proxmire took a $40-a-week job as investigative reporter on the Madison Capital-Times and enjoyed exploiting a since-repealed state law allowing the publication of individual state income tax returns. After an argument with his bosses on the subject, Proxmire was fired, then ran for and won a seat in the State Assembly in 1950. Democrats were so outnumbered and hard-up that the gubernatorial nomination of 1952 went to the Ivy League newcomer. He was drubbed by Governor Walter Kohler in 1952 and lost again in 1954. On his third try for governor, he ran into the Eisenhower landslide, and by the end of 1956 Proxmire’s political hopes were clouded in defeat. He had gone through a divorce—“a political casualty,” he calls it—had remarried, and planned to go into the printing business. Joseph McCarthy’s death meant a special election in 1957. Proxmire, the best-known name in the party, won the Democratic primary, then defeated Kohler for the Senate by 123,000 votes.
Within the Democratic Party today, Proxmire stands on the ground occupied by Senator Edmund S. Muskie of Maine in 1966. Proxmire has diligently established credentials in the complex but nonideological field of defense spending as Muskie did with the environment issue. Muskie impressed fellow politicians with detailed inquiries into relatively arcane fields like intergovernmental relations; Proxmire has done the same with his Joint Economic Committee expositions on the functioning of the Federal Reserve Board. Muskie’s goals were minor, but probably realistic ones for achieving a slowdown on pollution. Proxmire’s sights are aimed realistically low too: he wants an annual “posture statement” from the Secretary of State as well as the Secretary of Defense against which to measure Pentagon budget requests; and the installation of “zero-base” budgeting, forcing bureaucrats to justify the year-to-year existence of a program instead of explaining only its annual increment.
If, as they did in 1968, the Democrats decide to choose their vice presidential nominee largely on merit, Proxmire’s name may be high on the roster. If not, he can look forward to a fruitful career in the Senate, where he is second-ranking man on the Banking and Currency Committee, due to be chairman of the Joint Economic Committee, and is one of the younger members of the Appropriations Committee. In the parlance of politicians, he is not visibly “moving around” like, say, Birch Bayh or Harold Hughes, in search of the vice presidency or what lies beyond. But until he slows down, there is reason to suspect that William Proxmire is going somewhere.