By Eric Leventhal
This is William Proxmire, a Democratic senator from Wisconsin who was elected after the death of Joseph McCarthy in 1957 and who remained in office until he retired in 1989. His 32-year commitment to American politics is particularly relevant to our world in 2009.
First, Proxmire epitomizes the virtue of perseverance. When he sought to accomplish something, he did so with a firm and steadfast commitment to completion rarely allowing for compromise, much to the chagrin of many of his colleagues. Every morning the Senate was in session, from 1967 to 1986 (3211 days), Proxmire would extend an impassioned plea for ratification of the International Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Although Proxmire was criticized repeatedly for grandstanding and unnecessary ostentation, the treaty eventually passed the "advice and consent" legislative stage. In an era when "change" has been promised, particularly to the young, Proxmire's tenacity is a beacon of hope to all political activists.
Second, Proxmire introduced the "Golden Fleece" awards, which he regularly bestowed upon governmental expenditures he deemed gratuitous or unnecessary. In 1975, for example, he presented the award to the National Science Foundation for spending $84,000 to study how and why people fall in love. Another Golden Fleece was presented to the National Institute for Mental Health, which spent $97,000 "researching," (through repeated visitation) a Peruvian brothel. In an era in which the President is CEO of an iconic American automobile company, and nobody is entirely sure what happened to all the TARP money, Proxmire's vision of fiscal responsibility is increasingly prescient.
Senator Proxmire repeatedly fought for the protection, sanctity, and viability of the American taxpayer. His spirit of self-disinterest is inspiring at a time when Americans must come to grips with the ramifications of Madoff-ian greed.