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ROBERT KUTTNER

As senator, a tenacious Proxmire had a good run

FORMER SENATOR William Proxmire of Wisconsin, who died at 90 on Thursday, was a personal hero to me. I worked for him as a Senate investigator in the mid-1970s, when Proxmire was the new chairman of the powerful Senate Banking Committee. The banking lobbies had tried hard to block his appointment, since chairmen of that committee were typically in their pockets.

Proxmire was not in anyone's pocket. As chairman of a subcommittee, he had already pioneered laws requiring interest rates to be stated accurately with no hidden charges; giving consumers access to their credit reports; and simplifying real-estate closings. If you get an accurate interest charge or closing statement, or correct an error in your credit report, you can thank Proxmire.

As chairman of the full committee, he went on to take the lead on successful bills to ban bribery of foreign officials by US corporations, and create an obligation for banks to extend credit to less affluent communities rather than just siphoning out savings.

His intellect was as keen as his public-mindedness. Typically, our four senior aides would take turns researching and staffing a hearing. At one hearing, Proxmire was especially well briefed and eloquent. I asked the staff director, Ken McLean, who had done the brilliant staff work. ''Oh," said Ken. ''Prox stayed up late and staffed this one himself."

Proxmire was one of the first public figures to take up serious jogging. He was a fast runner, too. If you got up early enough, you would see him whizzing down Connecticut Avenue en route to Capitol Hill. Once, when his colleagues were offended by one of his attacks on special-interest legislation, they retaliated by taking away his shower. From then on, after his run he sponged off at the office sink.

Proxmire was that rarest of political creatures, a tight-money populist. He was as tough on the excesses of capitalism as any member of the House or Senate. He believed that powerful industries needed to be regulated in the public interest. But he was just as tough on government excess.

His monthly Golden Fleece awards lampooning government waste were his way of telling taxpayers that if liberals wanted government to do great things, they needed to be even more vigilant than conservatives about government excess. But while Proxmire could lampoon government research contracts for studies on, for example, Peruvian brothels, he was also a staunch supporter of major government social outlays, such as Social Security, Medicare, investment in cities, and antipoverty spending.

Proxmire was also remarkable for his tenacity. He had run for office several times and lost, before winning an upset victory in 1957 to take the Senate seat just vacated by the disgraced Joseph McCarthy.

Most senators' office walls are festooned with photos of the senator meeting with this or that dignitary, almost in the manner of a delicatessen. When I met with Proxmire to interview for the committee chief-investigator job, after coming off a not terribly happy employment experience, I was charmed to observe that Proxmire's own walls were spartan, except for some artwork and a framed sampler that read, ''Success is the Ability to Survive Failure." I've looked it up, and as far as I can tell, the quote is original to Proxmire. It certainly spoke to me that day, and has ever since.

His tenacity served him well in his 19-year crusade to get the Senate to ratify the long-stalled resolution approving the international treaty against genocide. He made a speech on the subject every morning when the Senate convened, more than 3,000 speeches in all, until his diehard opponents, imagining the United States being charged with genocide, finally relented in 1986. If he were in the Senate today, he would be standing with John McCain, demanding that the United States renounce torture.

For more than a decade, he helped keep alive a World War II invention detested by defense contractors called the Renegotiation Board, which required audits after military contracts were completed. If profits turned out to be excessive, the Treasury got a refund. Taxpayers saved tens of billions.

Beginning in 1972, Proxmire renounced all campaign contributions. While several other members of the Banking Committee and their staffs systematically shook down contributions from the industries they regulated, Proxmire did not take a nickel. Lobbyists were at a loss to know how to influence us. It gave us great pleasure to send back the Christmas bottles of booze.

Rest well. We need more such long-distance runners.

Robert Kuttner, co-editor of The American Prospect, can be reached at kuttner@prospect.org. His column appears regularly in the Globe.

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