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Roll Call

Late Senator Scolds Public in Self-Help Book

Terry Ashe/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

It takes a brave politician to talk about his hair implants.

But the late Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.) didn’t stop at that. In 1973, his book “You Can Do It! Senator Proxmire’s Exercise, Diet and Relaxation Plan” laid out in excruciating detail his own attempts to go against the grain and get physically fit. In doing so, he added to a quirky bibliography that includes “Uncle Sam: The Last of the Bigtime Spenders” and “Report From Wasteland: America’s Military-Industrial Complex.”

That’s right. A self-help book, from a United States Senator.

The ideas in the book aren’t radical. Exercise consistently. Eat balanced, smaller meals, emphasizing fruits and vegetables. Relax by slowing down or meditating or whatever. Pretty standard fare for self-help in the early 1970s, when the health boom was beginning.

No, the thing that makes the book interesting, aside from the oddity of a Member of Congress writing it, is how candid the language is. Most tomes by politicians are gauzy attempts to flatter the voting public.
Proxmire used “You Can Do It!” to criticize the American people as lazy, fat and soft, and he argued it was their patriotic duty to get in shape.

Proxmire, who died in 2005 at age 90, wasn’t the type to mince words. He came to Washington by winning a 1957 special election to replace the iconic and disgraced Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who died in May of that year.

Voters in Wisconsin had gotten to know him in 1952, 1954 and 1956, when he unsuccessfully ran for governor. But he embraced his past failures and even used them as a selling point, arguing that he knew what it was like to get knocked down and get back up, just like anyone else trying to make a living.

The voters would end up sending him back to Washington, D.C., five more times, until he retired in 1988. It wasn’t because he was a smooth political operator. In Washington, he took on vested interests and lost causes, exemplified with his monthly Golden Fleece Awards, which highlighted what he considered wasteful federal programs, and his years-long advocacy of the international anti-genocide treaty.

Still, even for someone who took his own colleagues to task for their stewardship of taxpayer money, it’s shocking to read the ways he tears into the public.

After an introductory statement about how rich and powerful and great the United States is, Proxmire stated flatly: “We are as a nation in one hell of a mess. The reason is simple: As a people we are a physical wreck. We are too fat, too soft, too tense.”

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.

The 1988 edition of Politics in America, published before Proxmire retired, said “his fanatical year-round campaign style has kept him securely in office without forcing him to spend more than a token amount of money.”

“Even though he regularly wins re-election with more than 60 percent of the vote, Proxmire acts like a man constantly on the verge of electoral extinction,” PIA said.

And about the hair implants? Proxmire wrote that they were part of the process of feeling younger and more confident. “It was an expensive and painful process, but very worthwhile. Of course a decision of this kind is a very personal one — I had been bald for almost fifteen years, so it was very exciting to have hair again,” he wrote.

Again, only a brave politician would dare use such candor.

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