A tribute to three public figures who died in recent days
COMMENTARY | December 21, 2005
Jack Anderson, Eugene McCarthy and William Proxmire set strong examples for the rest of us. Washington attorney Martin Lobel writes about the legacy of all three.
By Martin Lobel
Three outstanding Americans, Jack Anderson, Eugene McCarthy and Bill Proxmire, died in recent days. The examples set by each should cause the rest of us to think about what we are doing and what kind of legacy we will leave.
Jack learned his trade under Drew Pearson and became one of the most feared muckrakers in Washington. He broke many important stories that left the “legitimate” press gasping for air. Because he was never part of the establishment he could and did report on stories that exposed corruption and discomforted those in power in the public and private sector. Democracy was far better for his efforts.
Perhaps his real legacy was the people he trained. To name just a few: Les Whitten, who really ran the column on a day to day basis. Howie Kurtz of the Washington Post, widely acknowledged as the preeminent media reporter. Jack Cloherty, Washington bureau chief for NBC’s Dateline. Gary Cohen, a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter at the L.A. Times. Jack Mitchell, an inspector general who is on the board of POGO, the Project on Government Oversight in Washington. Tony Capaccio, who works for Bloomberg News. Brit Hume of Fox News. The list goes on. and at least some on it continue Anderson’s mission to expose abuses of power, an all too rare commodity today.
For most of his political career Senator McCarthy sounded like a liberal but “understood” enough about politics to be a safe enough vote for then Majority Leader, Lyndon Johnson, to appoint him to the Finance Committee. Fortunately, he cared enough about one issue to risk his entire political career – saving American lives by getting out of Vietnam. Thus he will not be remembered as a safe vote for the pharmaceutical industry on the Finance Committee, but as a man of principle who risked all for something he cared deeply about and who, as a result, led one of the few public revolts that voted out those in power. It was a truly remarkable transformation that showed one person could make a difference if he cared enough about the issue and knew how to manipulate the levers of power.
I worked for Senator Proxmire from 1968 to 1972 as his Legislative Assistant trying to eliminate corporate subsidies at the expense of ordinary taxpayers. He really believed in the free enterprise system, but in the 4½ years I worked for him I never met a businessman who didn’t believe in the free enterprise system and who, at the same time, didn’t have a special case that demanded either a government subsidy or protection from competition. Prox would have none of that and took on the most powerful groups in those days – the oil industry and the military industrial complex.
Interestingly, Proxmire’s attempts to keep the free market free from government interference caused him to become an arch-enemy of many so-called capitalists. He didn’t care because his idea of a fun evening was to go to the Brookings Institution and discuss arcane economic topics, so he knew he was right.
Battling the SST supersonic transport plane was a lonely effort for Prox at the outset, in 1970, because its principal sponsors were Warren Magnuson and Scoop Jackson, two powerful members of the Senate's inner club. But as they learned about the issue, more and more Senators kept coming up to him on the Senate floor, asking how they could help. Eventually, with a bare 51 votes, he was able to eliminate the SST's subsidy. It was an example of vision and persistence paying off.
Although Proxmire used the press to draw attention to some egregious abuses, the more telling stories about his concern for the public were ones that never became public. Two examples: During the Vietnam war he would regularly go to Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval Hospital to visit with wounded soldiers. We were ordered not to let anyone in the press know about it because he thought it might embarrass the wounded and he wanted to keep doing it.
The second, and funnier, story occurred during the Cuban missile crisis, when the Wisconsin National Guard was nationalized and sent to Oregon. The office kept getting complaints that there were inadequate blankets and intolerable food, even for the army. Well, Prox being Prox, decided to investigate and, without telling anyone, got on a plane to Oregon, took a taxi to the base where they were stationed and, because it was late when he arrived, he asked the duty sergeant whether he could have a bunk for the night. The sergeant recognized him, gave him a bunk and duly noted it in the duty log.
The next morning Prox was in the enlisted men's chow line when around the corner at a dead run came the base commander and his staff who had just discovered by reading the duty log that they had a United States Senator on the base. He suggested they go over to the officer's club for breakfast but Prox said, "No. why don't you join me here. I want to try the food here." That afternoon truckloads of unavailable blankets started arriving, more than enough to double the normal allotment of blankets for the troops, and the quality of the food improved, too.
A few other Senators, then and now, might do what Prox did, but, I think, not very many.
These three fine public figures have passed from the scene. Who will replace them?
Tribut to three Americans
- Independent troublemaker.
01/01/2006, 05:46 PM
I remember all three, but there was a lot there I didn't know about Proxmire. Of course, since he didn't want it publicized that would be.
Excellent article. Thanks for publishing it.