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William Proxmire, 90; senator vigorously tackled government waste, promoted consumer rights

WASHINGTON -- William Proxmire, 90, a Wisconsin Democrat whose enthusiasm for clean living became as much his US Senate hallmark as his good-governance measures and ''Golden Fleece" awards, died yesterday at the Copper Ridge care facility in Sykesville, Md. He had Alzheimer's disease.

Senator 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 when his focus did not seem to apply to his own state's dairy price supports. He was a political loner in Washington while becoming one of his state's most revered characters.

The senator was a fitness advocate -- jogging to work, early to bed -- and he liked to link his disciplined personal habits with his political image. He was said to reprimand an aide repeatedly for eating chocolate doughnuts.

Senator Proxmire, an independent-minded activist, used his increasingly influential civic pulpit to garner publicity for his causes and, some said, himself.

He was chairman of the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs from 1975 to 1981 and became the ranking minority member on the Appropriations Committee.

Those positions gave him more authority to criticize government spending, particularly military expenditures.

In addition, he pushed for consumer protection laws. The most notable was 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 that made it illegal for US 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 before President Reagan signed legislation to implement the treaty in 1988.

Senator 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.

Prizes went to studies that used public money to explore the effects of alcohol on fish, why prisoners like to escape from jail, and the shapeliness of airplane stewardesses.

He gave the Army Corps of Engineers the 1976 award of the year for ''the worst record of cost overruns in the entire federal government -- 47 percent of the corps's current projects had cost overruns of 100 percent or more."

The award backfired in 1976, when Senator Proxmire gave the prize to a Michigan researcher for studying aggressiveness in monkeys. The scientist sued for libel and later settled out of court with the senator. Senator Proxmire, criticized because the Senate paid his $124,000 legal bill, helped repay the money.

He cut a largely solitary figure in Washington. That was an outgrowth of his lone approach to politics by day and his preference to read instead of socialize with his colleagues at night.

He wrote a book about how to stay fit and actively publicized his regimen: wake up at 6 a.m., hundreds of pushups, a 5-mile run to the Capitol, a high-protein breakfast, bedtime by 10 p.m.

He once combined his two loves, politics and physical fitness, by running the 1,200-mile perimeter of Wisconsin.

Edward William Proxmire, the son of a surgeon and a housewife, was born in Lake Forest, Ill. He dropped his first name to honor his childhood hero, silent-movie cowboy William S. Hart, known for playing plain-speaking heroes.

He attended the Hill School in Pottstown, Pa., where he was voted ''class grind," and he was a 1938 graduate of Yale University, where he boxed and played football. He served in the Army Counterintelligence Corps during World War II and received two master's degrees, in public administration and then business administration, from Harvard University.

He worked briefly for J.P. Morgan & Co. in New York before deciding on a career in politics. He moved to Wisconsin, a state with a history of progressive politicians, such as ''Fighting Bob" La Follette, one of his idols.

After one term in the Wisconsin State Assembly in 1950, he spent the next several election cycles trying to unseat incumbent Governor Walter J. Kohler. He was unsuccessful but made essential contacts that helped him defeat Kohler in a special election in 1957 to fill the seat of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, a Republican who died in office.

On the stump, Senator Proxmire told crowds: ''My opponent doesn't know what it is to lose. I do. And I'll welcome the support of voters who do, too. I'll take the losers. I'll take the debtors. I'll take those who've lost in love, or baseball, or in business. I'll take the Milwaukee Braves."

He won a full US Senate term in 1958, holding the seat until deciding not to seek reelection in 1988.

In Washington, he immediately struck observers as either a fearless or a foolish freshman. He publicly challenged the power of majority leader Lyndon B. Johnson and House Speaker Sam Rayburn to make committee appointments in a speech that came to be called ''Proxmire's Farewell Address."

He was undeterred. During his career, he staged marathon filibusters against bills he deemed unworthy and presidential nominees he considered unqualified. His 16-hour, 12-minute overnight filibuster in September 1981 against raising the ceiling of the national debt got him attention but largely backfired when annoyed colleagues asked how many thousands had been spent to keep the Senate chamber open all night.

As banking committee chairman, Senator Proxmire surprised many by not turning his forum into an all-out attack on the industry. He had a major role in helping the Senate approve a multibillion-dollar federal loan to New York in the late 1970s to avert a default. He said the loan was essential to preventing worse problems.

While not antimilitary, he was critical of some military spending procedures. He wrote in the Washington Post's Potomac magazine in 1971: ''Military procurement . . . is in such a sad state that one can look in vain for a major weapons system which has been delivered on time, costs what the military estimated it would cost, and works according to specifications."

''He was a constant profile in courage on countless issues, continually insisting that the Senate live up to its ideals and always willing to wage lonely battles for noble causes," Senator Edward M. Kennedy told the Associated Press yesterday. The Massachusetts Democrat served with Senator Proxmire for nearly three decades.

On Senator Proxmire's own campaigns, he spent increasingly little as his opposition became token efforts to unseat him. During the 1976 race, he spent less than $200, mostly on envelopes to send back contributions.

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.

His marriage to the former Elsie Rockefeller, the great-grandniece of industrialist John D. Rockefeller, ended in divorce in 1955.

Senator Proxmire leaves his wife, Ellen Hodges Sawall Proxmire, whom he married in 1956, of Washington. He also leaves two children from his first marriage, Theodore of Washington and Elsie Zwerner of Scottsdale, Ariz.; a son from his second marriage, Douglas of Washington; two stepdaughters, Mary Ellen Poulos of Milwaukee and Jan Licht of Naperville, Ill.; and nine grandchildren.

A son from the second marriage, William, died in infancy in 1958.

A private memorial service will be held next week in Lake Forest, Ill. Services will be held later in Madison and Washington.

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