Senator William Proxmire Dies, Age 90

Former U.S. Senator William Proxmire died this morning at the age of 90 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

Former Sen. William Proxmire of Wisconsin Dies (WaPo)

Photo: Former Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.) pictured here in 1998 in the small office he maintained in the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. (Frank Aukofer, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel via AP) William Proxmire, a Wisconsin Democrat whose enthusiasm for clean living became as much his U.S. Senate hallmark as his good-governance measures and “Golden Fleece” awards, died early today at the Copper Ridge care facility in Sykesville, Md. He was 90 and had Alzheimer’s disease.

Proxmire, who served from 1957 to 1989, was considered one of the most tenacious legislators on Capitol Hill. He built a reputation as a public scold on fiscal matters, even if it did not apply to his own state’s dairy price supports. He was an iconoclast who enjoyed life as a political loner in Washington while becoming one of his state’s most revered characters. The senator was a fitness and health advocate — jogging to work, early to bed — and he liked to link his ascetic personal habits with his political image. He was said to reprimand an aide repeatedly for eating chocolate doughnuts.

He was a public and consumer advocate, an independent-minded activist beholden to few but his own constituents. He used his increasingly influential civic pulpit to garner publicity for his causes and, some said, himself. He was chairman of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs from 1975 to 1981 and became the ranking minority member on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Such assignments gave him prominent perches from which to criticize government spending, particularly military expenditures. In addition, he pushed for consumer protection laws, notably the 1968 Consumer Credit Protection Act, known as the “Truth in Lending Act,” requiring lenders to disclose interest rates and finance charges owed them by borrowers. He denounced redlining, a racially discriminatory real estate practice; helped shepherd legislation making it illegal for U.S. companies to bribe foreign governments for business contracts; and played a key role in eliminating funding for a supersonic transport plane.

Over 19 years, he gave more than 3,000 speeches on the Senate floor supporting ratification of an international treaty outlawing genocide before the bill passed in 1986. The measure had spent nearly four decades under consideration. Proxmire became a household name for his monthly Golden Fleece awards, started in 1975, to highlight “the biggest or most ridiculous or most ironic example of government waste.” The ceremony, as such, was a speech on the Senate floor.


After retiring, he wrote a syndicated column until he announced in March 1998 that he had Alzheimer’s disease. Visitors found him increasingly disoriented, unable to maintain a vital exercise regimen, a shell of his former dynamic self.

There are no comparable “characters” left in the Senate today.

Update: Michelle Malkin reminds us that we have at least one.

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James Joyner
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James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Rodney Dill says:

    Years ago, when I was still in school, my Dad and I went to the end of our driveway (which was off Hwy 27) to shake Proxmire’s hand. He was doing some kind of jog/run through-out parts of Wisconsin. I didn’t even realize that he was still alive.

  2. John Burgess says:

    Proxmire’s “Golden Fleece” awards frequently annoyed me. Often he would point out a research project that actually was worthwhile, but was merely badly packaged for the public. Dumb-sounding project names were stuck on solid research packages.

    I’m not claiming that there’s no waste, or that it needs to be gotten under control.

    My complaint is that Proximire often went for the cheap hit.

  3. cirby says:

    They should bury him in an experimental, multimillion-dollar coffin.