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Mark Shields is a nationally known columnist and commentator.

Wisconsin's maverick liberal

Sen. William Proxmire, shown in 1974, served more than 30 years in the Senate.



A full 30 years before there was a maverick John McCain, R-Arizona, in the U.S. Senate, there was maverick Bill Proxmire, D-Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin Democrat who died this week at 90 was truly a certified iconoclast. His willingness and zest for waging the lonely, uphill battle for 31 years against politically popular appropriations and their influential backers proved that in order to be a liberal -- which Bill Proxmire most definitely was -- you do not need to be a spendthrift squandering the public's money.

In the spirit of full disclosure: In the mid-1960s, I spent nearly three happy years as a legislative assistant on the Proxmire Senate staff, where my duties included cranking out a daily floor statement that Proxmire delivered urging U.S. approval of the international treaty outlawing genocide.

You think you know tenacity? Proxmire, who had lost races for Wisconsin governor in 1952, 1954 and 1956, before winning a 1957 special election to succeed the late Joe McCarthy, gave 3,211 speeches on the topic, until the Senate in 1986 finally ratified the genocide treaty.

The Proxmire obituaries emphasize his Golden Fleece Awards given monthly for two purposes: First, to spotlight a specific example of dubious and wasteful spending (my personal favorite remains the $100,000 study to determine whether fish that had consumed tequila were more belligerent than fish that had stuck with gin) and, second, to spotlight Sen. Proxmire.

But if the Golden Fleece required no extraordinary courage, taking on the Nixon administration, the Boeing Co. and the state of Washington's two powerful Democratic senators, Henry "Scoop" Jackson and Warren Magnuson, most certainly did.

Proxmire did exactly that in his uphill, 10-year fight to stop public financing of the SST supersonic transport plane, which he viewed as sticking ordinary taxpayers with the bill for the convenience of well-heeled jet-setters. Proxmire won, and the eventual grounding of all British and French SSTs vindicated his judgment.

He was the nemesis of Pentagon spenders. He exposed the up-to-then unimaginable $2 billion cost overrun on Lockheed's C-5A super transport plane. He opposed Ronald Reagan's Star Wars program and once observed as evidence of the Navy's profligacy: "Move over $7,000 coffeepots! Stand aside $400 hammers. We now have the $792 doormat."

But Bill Proxmire was much more than a budget watchdog or public penny-pincher. He believed in the positive power of government to make a more just and humane national community. He was always a strong supporter of civil rights, and workers' rights, and Mom and Pop stores.

His populist instincts and values put him almost invariably on the side of the little guy. Over the well-financed opposition of financial institutions and major retailers, Proxmire passed the Truth-in-Lending law, which guaranteed consumers access to information of all their financing and borrowing costs, and forced banks to compete on open and equal terms.

His discipline was the stuff of legends. Long before jogging became a presidential photo-op, Sen. Proxmire was running daily, not jogging, the four miles from his Washington home to the Capitol and back again.

Bill Proxmire took his job seriously, but not himself. Between 1966 and his last year in office, 1988, he answered 10,252 consecutive Senate roll calls -- without missing one. This understandably did not endear him to his colleagues, whose opponents contrasted their less impressive attendance records.

In addition, he was back in Wisconsin at least three weekends a month, pressing the flesh and meeting with his state's citizens. The result: He once carried every county in the state.

In his last two races, Bill Proxmire accepted no contributions. None. He spent less than $200 out of his own pocket in each race, almost all for postage and stationery to return unsolicited checks. Let the record show that Tom DeLay never met Bill Proxmire.

He was a good and honest man, a good boss and a great public servant. Sadly, we have yet to see his like again. Thank you, Senator.

Click here for more from Creators Syndicate.

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