With Ronald Reagan announcing his gigantic salary grab to increase by 50% the pay of members of Congress and other top government officials (including his own pension), the 32 year career of retiring Senator, William Proxmire (0-WI) stands in even more startling contrast.
Senators don’t come along like Proxmire anymore. Replacing Joseph McCarthy in 1956, Proxmire developed so many positive traits that I took the unusual step last month of noting six of them at the Senator’s last Congressional hearing which, typically, dealt with the need for financial consumer associations.
First was his steadfastness — always working hard and on the job in the Senate. He set records for voting attendance and for his persistence. It took him almost three decades and over one thousand brief Senate speeches to get the Senate to ratify the Treaty against genocide. While other members were junketing around the world or relaxing at cushy vacation spas, during Congressional recesses, there was Proxmire conducting public hearings in Washington on important and current matters.
For most of his Senate career, he jogged to work from his home five miles away: indeed he probably was Washington’s first daily jogger of note. Proxmire was the Lou Gehrig of the Congress.
Second, he was authentic from the non-politician way he spoke to his practice of writing his own speeches and books. When he was lobbied, he listened with eye contact and intermittent responses, unlike many_ politicians who exude with an automatic nodding glaze.
Third, he ran the all-time frugal re-election campaign time after time. He would spend about $200 per Senatorial campaign, mostly for postage to send back campaign contributions. One of his campaign practices was to work at various blue collar jobs in his state to get the feel of the folks and their concerns. He also, of course, ran right across the state too.
He was a regular opponent of Congressional salary increases and a watchdog over reckless government spending and boondoggles. Government whistleblowers looked to him for support in exposing wrongdoing and waste.
Fourth, never was there a whiff of impropriety. Proxmire wrote the standard on integrity for his colleagues by his behavior.
Fifth, on substantive legislative matters, there have been Senators with better voting records, but Proxmire was quite consistently good on consumer, environmental and other populist issues. What’s more he believed in establishing a detailed hearing record on the Banking Committee and was attentive and polite to witnesses regardless of their opinions. This latter courtesy could not be said of his Republican counterpart, Senator Jake Garn of Utah.
Lastly, Proxmire retains his uniqueness after retirement. He is not joining some corporation or lobbying firm or bank — all of whom would love to pay him dearly to join. No, he is going to do research, write and speak out on public issues relating to economic policy and financial concentration. From the public service to the citizen service, the energetic, clear-voiced man from Wisconsin stays busy. Proxmire could have been elected to the Senate from any state of the Union.
A sad note: when the history of the air bag is written, the role of Archie Boe, former president of Allstate Insurance Company should be described as an example of safety advocacy all too rare in insurance industry circles. Together with his colleague, Donald Schafer, Mr. Boe urged the auto companies to adopt air bags in the mid Seventies, bought air bag equipped cars for the Allstate fleet and promoted air bags in full page newspaper ads and pamphlets.
This advocacy irritated the auto moguls but Boe and Schafer pressed the Department of Transportation to act nonetheless. Archie Boe passed away last week in a Chicago hospital. There should be many more insurance executives thinking and acting like he did on preventing casualties through safety advances.