William Proxmire, the son of a wealthy surgeon, was born in Lake Forest, Illinois, on 11th November, 1915. He studied at Yale University and Harvard Business School. After the Japanese Airforce bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, William Proxmire enlisted in the US Army as a private. He was assigned to counterintelligence work and was discharged in 1946 as a first lieutenant.
Proxmire moved to Wisconsin to be a reporter for The Capital Times in Madison. According to Proxmire: "They fired me after I'd been there seven months, for labor activities and impertinence." William Proxmire stayed in Wisconsin and worked briefly for a union newspaper. He also had a weekly radio show called Labor Sounds Off, sponsored by the American Federation of Labor.
Proxmire took an interest in politics and his idol was Robert La Follette. A member of the Democratic Party, Proxmire failed in his attempts to become governor of Wisconsin in 1952, 1954 and 1956. Proxmire was elected to the Senate in 1957 to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Joseph R. McCarthy.
A strong supporter of Civil Rights, in his first term, he clashed with the Senate majority leader, Lyndon B. Johnson, because he thought he was blocking civil rights legislation. He was also a leading critic of the oil depletion allowance. Johnson used his position in the Senate to get Proxmire removed from the important Finance Committee. Proxmire responded by calling Johnson a dictator and a paid spokesman for the Texas oil industry.
President John F. Kennedy agreed with William Proxmire about the oil depletion allowance and talked of it being reduced from its high level of 27.5 per cent. This was not implemented before his death in November, 1963. It remained unchanged during Johnson's presidency. According to Barr McClellan this resulted in a saving of over 100 million dollars to the American oil industry. Soon after Johnson left office it dropped to 15 per cent.
William Proxmire voted for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution but later felt that Lyndon B. Johnson misled Congress and he became an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War. He used his seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee to spotlight wasteful military spending and was instrumental in stopping frequent military pork barrel projects (government spending that is intended to benefit constituents of a politician in return for their political support, either in the form of campaign contributions or votes).
Proxmire was unhappy that the United States government would not sign up in support of the UN Genocide Convention. Starting in 1967, he made a speech every day Congress convened - a total of 3,211 speeches - over a 19 year period. His campaign came to an end when the genocide convention was accepted in 1986.
In 1975 William Proxmire established his annual Golden Fleece Awards. In this way he "publicized outlandish government spending, bureaucratic wastage or money misused in the case of self-advancement". Some examples of his Golden Fleece awards was the US navy's use of 64 planes to fly 1,334 pilots to a reunion in Las Vegas and doormats that cost the navy $792 each.
Proxmire served as chairman of the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs until his retirement in 1988.
William Proxmire died on 15th December, 2005.