William Proxmire ... and me
Former Senator William Proxmire (D-WI) died today at the age of 90. He earned a reputation as one of Capitol Hill's fiercest critics of government waste and incompetence. He first rose to national fame in 1968 when, in his capacity as chairman of the Joint Economic Subcommittee, he exposed the huge cost overruns on the C-5A "Galaxy" military transport jet. For more on this case, see globalsecurity.org.) In the years following, Proxmire became a relentless crusader for good government, attacking "waste, fraud, and abuse" wherever he could find it. Woe be unto any complacent, gluttonous bureaucrat who stood in his way! Proxmire was not a demagogue, however, and I was among the many people who held him in high esteem for taking on the privileged fiefdoms of the Federal bureaucracy in Washington. [For a full obituary, see CNN.com.]
Proxmire was among those in the late 1970s who took the lead in popularizing jogging as a way to improve physical conditioning and health. I even saw him once or twice jogging down Massachusetts Avenue, heading to work. His wiry frame, thinning hair on top, and glasses made it easy to recognize him.
I also had a rather remarkable one-on-one encounter with him, over the telephone, back when I was a junior bureaucrat. This was in 1980, or thereabouts. Someone on his staff apparently thought they had caught an error in the text of the monthly Producer Price Index news release, which I used to help write, and Proxmire was going to call attention to what he thought was a bureaucratic screw-up by making an example out of some hapless underling: me. I took a telephone call on the day of the PPI release, when our office was regularly inundated with inquiries from journalists and businessmen, and was told that Senator Proxmire wanted to talk to me. You cannot imagine the icy shivers of terror I felt as I waited to be chewed out by an official of his immense stature. Somehow I composed myself as the senator got on the line and read to me two separate sentences from different paragraphs of the news release. One pertained to the Producer Price Index for Finished Goods, and the other pertained to the Producer Price Index for Finished Consumer Goods. He thought those two categories were the same thing, but the latter excludes Capital Equipment such as machinery, heavy trucks, and tools. When I realized that his big "gotcha" was a mistake on the part of his own staff (failure to read the text closely enough), I got a big smile on my face and politely explained why the two indexes were slightly different. "Oh, I see." I don't recall his exact words, but I'll never forget the feeling of triumph I had in facing down one of the most feared public figures in Washington.
UPDATE: Thanks to Donald Sensing for linking to this posting.