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Odd Wisconsin Archive

"Prox for Prez"

When George McGovern died this week, obituaries focused on his failed bid for the White House in 1972. He carried only Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., after a dirty tricks campaign by incumbent President Richard Nixon that included forged letters, false press releases, IRS harassment, campaign spies, and of course the famous Watergate break-in.

But it might have been Wisconsin Sen. William Proxmire on the receiving end of Nixon's dirty tricks.

Imagining the White House

Proxmire had been easily re-elected senator in 1970 and had gained a national reputation for his ironic "Golden Fleece" awards. He was a fiscal conservative who opposed unnecessary government spending. But he was also a liberal who thought government should play an active role in expanding education, improving housing, and reducing poverty. His reluctance to spend money was legendary.

His presidential bid "started out as a lark and ended as a lark," according to Proxmire staffer Marty Lobel. "He would have liked to been President. Which politician wouldn't? And also which Senator doesn't think he's smarter than the President, or more deserving of being President than the President?

"But it started out - we were having a meeting and I made the comment, 'You know, if this is the situation, you ought to run for President.' ...And nothing much happened, and then I happened to mention to [Washington journalist] Jack Anderson that Prox really should be considered because he's smart. Anderson ran and called him about that. So Prox said, 'Well, gee, if Jack Anderson thinks I really should do it, maybe I ought to.'"

Testing the Waters

Proxmire's chief of staff Ken McLean said the Senator "went up to test the waters in New Hampshire, and he goes up in a bus all by himself and stays in a YMCA. I mean, that's how cheap he was."

Proxmire's family had reservations. His stepson Ted remembered that, "He was thinking that he would - as he used the line, 'Kick the tires of a presidential campaign'... because the Democrats really didn't have a person that they thought was going to [beat Nixon] - Humphrey had lost the '68 election, Teddy Kennedy had the Chappaquiddick kind of thing, and so... McGovern ended up getting the nomination. But prior to that, there was really no front-runner or perceived front-runner. And I'll never forget. I said, "Are you sure?"

Dick Cudahy, who ran his Senate campaigns, was more enthusiastic, "as were a lot of his other close supporters; he was quite amenable. I've still got some buttons, 'Prox for Prez' and so forth."

"I remember Dick Cudahy coming to the house one night," the Senator's wife Ellen remembers, "and thinking, 'Prox for Prez' kind of thing. I didn't think that Bill had the strength within the Party because the nomination process is really a partisan effort. And it was like, the Wisconsin Democratic Party -- Bill wasn't going to lie down and do everything they suggested... I never thought it was a very good idea."

His friend Ken Dameron explained, "Why didn't he have a chance? These maverick stands on all these positions, you know, not being subject to being controlled by anybody. Can you imagine trying to control Bill Proxmire? Telling him what to do and how to behave?"

Too Ethical to Be President?

Ralph Nader, watching from the sidelines, thought Proxmire simply had too much integrity to run a presidential campaign: "He would have been a good President. But, you know, running for President means cutting a lot of deals on the way, and he wasn't into that."

Proxmire ultimately gave up the idea, according to Cudahy, because "if you're going to run for President, you gotta have some big bucks coming out of Hollywood, New York and a few other places like that... I mean, you gotta make too many deals and too many compromises to be President of the United States. I don't think that he was of the mold that can make it to President."

McLean concurred: "he realized pretty quickly that he was never going to get the money unless he changed his spots. He'd have to go begging for money to run the campaign, and he just couldn't do that."

So Proxmire abandoned the idea. Dameron thought that privately he continued "secretly just dying to be President. But Senator Proxmire had this standard response, you know, which went like this - I'm going to paraphrase it - 'I would love to be President of the United States - dash, dash - 'but I have absolutely no chance, and I mean none whatsoever, of ever getting my Party's nomination.' (laughter)"

But Proxmire didn't admit any disappointment. Instead, "he would just say,'Senator's the greatest job in the world. Why would I ever give that up?'"

And he escaped McGovern's fate of being remembered as the candidate humiliated by Richard Nixon.

[Sources: the interviews quoted above are online in our digital collection of Sen. Proxmire's papers. The specific quotations are on these pages].

:: Posted in Curiosities on October 25, 2012
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