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Late Senator Scolds Public in Self-Help Book

Terry Ashe/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Decades before the debate over health care costs polarized Congress and the White House in the early years of the Clinton and Obama administrations, Proxmire wrote: “Every year we spend billions of your tax dollars to restore a little of the health damage done by the incredibly unhealthy habits of our modern American life. ... But no matter how much we spend on Medicare, Medicaid, health care of any kind Congress has yet considered, we will still be a nation of too soft, too sickly people. Maybe it has to be this way. But this book is my effort to do something about it.”

So the book is as political as it is personal.

And, as a cultural artifact, it’s amusing as a sociological snapshot.

Proxmire extols the use of “new biofeedback machines” to monitor tensions and teach how to control them. “They’re going to be the rage in a few years.” Not really.

In the cringe-worthy category, he recommended that everyone read “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” Richard Bach’s allegory about a bird’s quest for higher purpose. 

Some of his pop references are not only dated — they turned out to be unfortunate choices. For instance, he referred to Rock Hudson as the picture of health, 12 years before Hudson would die of complications from AIDS.

Perhaps it would have been better to stick with his nods to William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw.

But overall, there is a refreshing candor to the writing that you don’t see from many stilted memoirs or books from political figures. It’s as if Proxmire knows he’s a little bit of a goofball, and that gives him the freedom to say what he believes.

And it’s hard to imagine him not believing strongly in this stuff because the downsides to talking about your own fake hair or calling out Americans for being obese are immense for a political figure.

“Well, you can see how at least one inner-directed person, who also happens to be a United States Senator, thinks — what makes him tick. Maybe you’ll get a good laugh or a long yawn. Why not? It’s a free country,” Proxmire wrote.

The hokeyness of the title (complete with exclamation point) and the book’s incessant calls to keep trying were likely borne out of Proxmire’s own political fortunes.

There were the three empty-handed gubernatorial runs in the ’50s.

And he was a lonely, and persistent, voice speaking in the Senate in favor of the genocide treaty, trudging to the floor 3,211 times from 1967 to 1986 to needle the chamber to ratify it.

“If Proxmire intended to pick a loser on the legislative front, he could not have done any better than the genocide convention,” Samantha Powers wrote in her book, “A Problem From Hell,” a study of 20th-century genocide and the United States.

But Proxmire kept at it, giving his speeches until the Senate ratified the treaty. Several of the chapter and subhead titles sprinkled throughout his book reflect this doggedness: “You Face a Long, Tough Grind,”
“The Long, Long Pull,” “Persistence Is the Name of the Game,” “Keep at It” and, perhaps most revealingly for a loner legislator like Proxmire, “You’re Alone.”
Voters in Wisconsin seemed to notice.

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