Senator William Proxmire Collection
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Between 2008 and 2011, oral historian Anita Hecht of Life History Services interviewed 39 friends, family, colleagues, and former staff of Sen. William Proxmire. Ellen Proxmire was interviewed twice, so there are 40 interviews total.
Roll your cursor over a photo or name to see a brief description about how the person was connected with Sen. Proxmire. Click on a photo or name to access the full transcript.
Transcripts average about 60 pages in PDF files. Each transcript is preceded by a short biography of the person interviewed and a list of the topics raised, in the order they were discussed
To find specific keywords or topics, use the Search box on the transcript page.
Frank Aukofer worked as a Milwaukee Journal reporter 1960-2000. He was assigned to the paper's Washington, D.C., bureau in 1970. He covered nearly all of Senator Proxmire's public career and continued to write about Proxmire in his retirement, including his struggle against Alzheimer's disease.
Bill Cherkasky was an Appleton Republican who helped bring down Sen. Joe McCarthy in the early 1950s. He became a Democrat and helped revive that party in Wisconsin. During the 1960s and 1970s, he served as Sen. Gaylord Nelson's chief of staff. He was a close friend of Proxmire for half a century.
Educated at West Point and Yale University, Judge Richard Cudahy chaired the Wisconsin Democratic Party during the 1960s and led Proxmire's campaigns 1964-1972. He remained close to Proxmire for the rest of the senator's life, while serving as a U. S. Court of Appeals judge for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago.
In 1975, after studying law at Harvard University and earning a doctorate degree from Columbia University, Ken Dameron became the lead attorney on Proxmire's staff. He remained with the senator until 1989 and was was largely responsible for developing and writing the monthly "Golden Fleece Awards."
Mary Frances de la Pava
Mary Frances de la Pava served as Proxmire's secretary and chief clerk 1969-1984. She worked closely with him on a daily basis, especially with correspondence and relationships with constituents in Wisconsin.
William Ryan Drew
Bill Drew was a volunteer for Proxmire's senate campaign 1963-1964. In 1966 he joined the Washington, D.C. staff and served as liaison to the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, wrote speeches, and worked with constituents. In 1968 he returned to Wisconsin, where he launched a successful career in Milwaukee politics and government.
Carl Eifert served as Proxmire's press secretary 1970-1976, after working a dozen years in journalism. Besides writing press releases and helping to handle media relations, he became the staff expert on the FCC Fairness Doctrine.
John Daniel Finerty
After receiving his law degree in 1964, John Finerty joined the Proxmire campaign as treasurer. He worked part-time as the senator's Wisconsin legal counsel, running Proxmire's Wisconsin office and dealing with constituents' legal questions 1966-1968 . After starting his own law firm in 1971, Finerty continued to participate in campaign strategy and political discussions with Proxmire.
Trained as both an attorney and a librarian, Ruth Fleischer began working at the senator's office in 1980, when many environmental issues fell to Proxmire following Gaylord Nelson's departure from the Senate. She was his staff expert on environmental issues throughout the 1980s.
Milwaukee attorney Matt Flynn has been intimately involved in Wisconsin Democratic Party politics since 1976. In 1981 he was chosen party chair. Proxmire supported his campaigns for state and federal office during the 1970s and 1980s, and the two worked closely on party concerns.
Following his election in 1974, Utah Senator Jake Garn became a close colleague of Proxmire. He replaced the senator 1980-1986 as Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. Though on opposite ends of the political spectrum, both Garn and Proxmire viewed banking as a non-partisan issue.
University of Wisconsin Professor Charles Graham served on Proxmire's staff 1960-1961 as a legislative assistant. He worked on many issues such as small business legislation, the oil depletion allowance, and a bill to abolish the electoral college. He stayed in touch with Proxmire in subsequent decades as he went on to a successful career in academia.
Richard Kaufman worked closely with Proxmire 1967-1989 as a staff member for the congressional Joint Economic Committee. As general counsel of the committee 1975-1993, the majority of his work was for the senator.
Congressman Ron Kind interned for Proxmire in Washington, D.C., the summer after his junior year at Harvard University (1984) . He researched the Reagan administration's support for the counterinsurgency movements in Central America, including the Iran-Contra Affair. Kind also researched the Golden Fleece Awards and wrote speeches for Proxmire on the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and nuclear disarmament.
In 1967, 30-year-old reporter Lawrence Knutson began four decades at the Associated Press bureau in Washington, D.C. He had intimate access to Senator Proxmire, his staff and colleagues, and covered all the senator's activities. Knutson maintained his connection with the Senator until Proxmire's retirement in 1989, often reviewing his books and writing about his politcal concerns.
Economics journalist Bob Kuttner worked at the Washington Post and I.F. Stone's Weekly before Proxmire recruited him in 1975 to be the chief investigator of the Senate Banking Committee. As chief investigator, Kuttner ran inquiries into foreign bribery by U.S. corporations, leading to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act; and on mortgage redlining, leading to the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act of 1975 and the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977.
Robert Lewis was Proxmire's first administrative assistant after he won his Senate seat in 1957. Lewis worked on a host of issues, including reviving the Food Stamp Program. He wrote speeches and press releases, drafted legislation, and worked with the Senate Agriculture Committee, on which Proxmire initially served. In 1959, Lewis left to work for Wisconsin Gov. Gaylord Nelson. Since 1968, Lewis has been an economic consultant to agribusiness firms and farmers' organizations and for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Farmers Union.
Jan Licht is the younger daughter of Ellen Proxmire by her first marriage. In 1956, when Ellen married William Proxmire, Jan and her sister Mary Ellen joined the Proxmire household, which also included the senator's two children. Her interview includes many details about the family's life in Washington, D.C., and her step-father's personality. Because Jan is a trained psychotherapist, she offers insights about family dynamics that are not usually found in childhood memoirs.
After studying law at Harvard University, Martin Lobel spent 10 months in 1967 working for House Minority Leader Gerald R. Ford and Senator Proxmire. Afterward, Proxmire asked Lobel to join his staff. Lobel served as a legislative assistant until October 16, 1971. He was responsible for energy, consumer affairs and government waste and corruption issues. He led Proxmire's efforts to eliminate the oil import quota and depletion allowance, which garnered hatred of the senator by the oil industry and President Lyndon B. Johnson.
In 1951, Patrick Lucey was named executive director of Wisconsin's fledgling Democratic Party. In 1954, he ran Jim Doyle Sr.'s gubernatorial campaign and three years later chaired Proxmire's successful campaign for Joseph McCarthy's Senate seat. Lucey chaired the Wisconsin Democratic Party 1957-1963 and co-chaired the state delegation to the Democratic National Convention 1972 and 1976. He was elected Wisconsin's lieutenant governor in 1964 and governor in 1970 and 1974.
In 1982, college student Marc Marotta was an intern in Proxmire's office. He drove Proxmire around Milwaukee during his Senate re-election campaign, and worked on such matters as the Genocide Convention, the Golden Fleece Awards, worker training legislation, and constituent relations. After graduating from Harvard University Law School in 1987, Marotta led a distinguished career as an attorney and government official, and has remained active in Democratic Party affairs.
Ken McLean joined Proxmire's staff in 1967, after a decade working for the Pentagon and the Senate Banking Committee. For more than two decades he researched issues, drafted legislation, organized hearings, recruited witnesses and handled lobbyists. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, McLean worked on the Truth in Lending legislation, which included the Consumer Credit Protection Act (1968), the Fair Credit Reporting Act (1970), and the Fair Credit Billing Act (1974). When Proxmire became the Banking Committees Chairman in 1975, McLean became its chief of staff.
Walter Mondale was appointed to the Senate in 1964. He was re-elected and served until he won the vice presidency of the United States in 1976. Mondale worked closely with Proxmire on the Senate Banking, Housing & Urban Affairs Committee, especially on Truth in Lending legislation. Mondale respected Proxmire as "a disciplined workaholic," a budgetary watchdog, and a supporter of civil, consumer, and human rights.
Consumer advocate Ralph Nader is often cited as having played key roles in the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Freedom of Information Act and the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Although Nader and Proxmire took on similar causes, his direct contact with the senator was primarily at congressional hearings, where he was called to testify and answer Proxmire's questions. He worked closely with the senator's staff, however, and has much to say about how the Proxmire office ran.
Rep. David Obey served 1963-1969 in the Wisconsin State Assembly as a Democrat. He was active in local party affairs, and both Sens. Gaylord Nelson and William Proxmire participated in his campaigns. When elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1969, Obey was the youngest member of Congress. He and Proxmire served on the Joint Economic Committee and they worked closely together until the senator's retirement in 1989. Obey represented Wisconsin's 7th Congressional District in Washington, D.C. until his own retirement in 2011.
Mary Ellen Poulos
Attorney Mary Ellen Sawall Poulos is the elder daughter of Ellen Proxmire by her first marriage. In 1956, when she was ten, her mother married William Proxmire. She and her sister Jan joined the Proxmire household, which also included the senator's two children. Her interview includes many details about the family's life in Washington, D.C. and her step-father's personality.
Douglas Clark Proxmire is the senator's and Ellen Proxmire's son born in 1961. His interview sheds much light on the senator's role as father in a blended family that included Doug and four half-siblings from his parents' previous marriages.
During the mid-1950s, Ellen Proxmire was active in reviving Wisconsin's Democratic Party. At the Democratic National Convention in 1956 she and the senator agreed to marry. Each had two young children from previous marriages when they moved to Washington, D.C. in 1957. Ellen not only supported her husband's career but also ran her own successful event planning business 1967-1992. In 1964 she authored the book, "One Foot in Washington: The Perilous Life of a Senator's Wife."
Ted Proxmire is the elder of two children from the senator's first marriage. He grew up primarily with his mother in Madison but spent every other weekend and his summers with his father. In his interview he recalls political discussions with the senator as he came of age in the tumultous 1960s and 1970s.
In 1964 Ann Purcell worked as receptionist, personal secretary and later legislative aide in Senator Proxmire's office. She wrote human rights and other speeches, radio scripts, and legislative position papers and correspondence. Her extensive campaign work for the 1970 campaign included co-producing and writing 26 TV films and radio campaign commercials. She later worked on the Presidential campaign of Senator George McGovern. Ann moved to New York and became a professional artist whose paintings are in many museums and important private collections.
Paul Sarbanes became a colleague of Proxmire in 1976, when he was elected senator from Maryland. The two worked closely together on a range of issues. They both served on the Joint Economic Committee and the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee. Both supported government regulation of the banking industry. Like Proxmire, Sarbanes served in the Senate for over 30 years.
Economist Morton Schwartz worked for Proxmire 1974-1988. His duties included research, speech writing, and briefing Proxmire for hearings on commerce, transportation, international trade, human resources and economic matters. Morton served as a liaison to the Joint Economic Committee and the Appropriations Subcommittee, helping to structure hearings and prepare questions. He also headed Proxmire's intern program for several years and was heavily involved in identifying and investigating possible Golden Fleece Award candidates.
Political journalist Mark Shields served on Proxmire's staff from September 1965 until 1968. He left to work for Sen. Robert F. Kennedy's presidential campaign. The following year became campaign director for the Democratic National Committee.
Alan Kooi Simpson
Alan Simpson served in the Wyoming State Legislature 1964-1977. In 1978, he was elected to the Senate, where he served until 1997 and came to know Proxmire. Though on opposites ends of the political spectrum, Simpson recalled that the two men occupied similar roles as "designated irritants" in the Senate, taking unpopular positions.
Ron Tammen started as a legislative assistant for Proxmire in 1972, and served as the senator's chief of staff 1982-1989 . He was responsible for developing and executing annual legislative plans concerning foreign policy, national defense, international trade, budget and finance. During Tammen's service on Capitol Hill, Proxmire chaired the Joint Economic Committee and the Senate Banking Committee, and was a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. He stayed with Proxmire until the last day of the senator's career and maintained contact throughout the rest of Proxmire's life.
Thomas Van Der Voort
Tom van der Voort worked as an intern for Proxmire in 1963 and was hired the following year as a legislative assistant. For the next 10 years, he worked closely with the senator on reapportionment, the Genocide Convention, the Golden Fleece Awards, agriculture issues affecting Wisconsin, civil rights legislation, and appropriations oversight. In January 1975 he became chief clerk on the Appropriations Subcommittee for HUD-Independent Agencies, which Proxmire chaired. He retired from government service in 1989, shortly after the senator did.
In 1979, President Jimmy Carter appointed Paul Volcker to serve as Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. He remained in charge of the Federal Reserve until the end of 1987. Over the course of that decade he worked closely with Proxmire, who was chair of the Senate Banking Committee. Both men were involved in setting monetary policy and ensuring the safety of the nation's banking system through regulatory means.
Richard Wegman joined Proxmire's staff in 1968 as a legislative assistant after completing Harvard University Law School and working for the U.S. Department of Justice. He remained on the senator's staff until 1974, working primarily on environmental and judicial matters, and the Supersonic Transport (SST) issue.
Attorney Leonard Zubrensky was Proxmire's de facto campaign manager during the 1952 gubernatorial campaign. According to Zubrensky, he ran the campaign in Milwaukee while Proxmire managed the rest of Wisconsin. The two remained warm friends throughout Proxmires political career, as well as after his retirement from the Senate.