One can filibuster or one can be loved. The old maxim was reaffirmed yesterday morning when William Proxmire (D-Wis.) ended a 16-hour, 12-minute stand on the Senate floor with a profuse apology to "the chief presiding officers, the pages, the reporters and all the people who have just been so courteous and so helpful and so gentle in spite of the fact that I've been such a trial to them."
It had been a "gentleman's filibuster," Proxmire said, meaning that he had agreed in advance not to call for any binding Senate action, not to delay the resumption of regular Senate business at 10:30 a.m. yesterday, and not to use any parliamentary trickery to prevent the move that had provoked his oratorical ire in the first place: the enactment of a $1.079 trillion federal budget ceiling.
But even as Proxmire left the Senate chamber with the sweat of a champion on his brow, uncharitable Senate staffers were paying wry tributes to the capacity of his bladder (former Oregon senator Wayne Morse "used to come with plumbing attached," it was recalled), and totaling up cruel statistics about how much money had been spent to finance his attack on spending -- $47,500 for the extra Congressional Record, $6,500 in police overtime and $10,500 in building maintenance costs, it was said (plus incalculable extra man hours from personnel on fixed salaries).
A 'Golden Fleece'?
When Proxmire presented his remains to the press -- his gray sports jacket still bravely buttoned in the middle and his blue "Wisconsin Is Great" tie still proudly knotted about his neck -- there were hardly any questions about the physical ordeal, or the magnificence of his achievement. Instead, he was asked whether, considering the expense, he shouldn't nominate himself for one of his renowned "Golden Fleece" awards.
"Well now, come on," the senator replied, battling hard to keep a smile on his face, "I was talking about a trillion dollars . . . I was standing up and doing what a senator should do." If he had really cost the taxpayers $64,500, it "just indicates what inflation has done to us," he said. "If we didn't have this terrible inflation, I think it would have cost about $100."
Whatever it cost, it was a staggering performance, even for the man who once scared off a pair of muggers by telling them, "Go ahead and shoot -- I'm dying of cancer anyway," and who runs five miles to work every morning after 100 push-ups and 200 sit-ups. (He didn't run to work yesterday, of course; he was already there.) Like James Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," Proxmire expected his colleagues to think twice about any issue that would drive a man to take such an extreme measure. Some of Proxmire's colleagues may have thought twice, but last night the Senate voted 64 to 34 in favor of the $1.079 trillion budget ceiling, following action taken previously by the House.
The Record Books
The record books for such triumphs are not as thorough as they might be, but yesterday's consensus put Proxmire's speech only fifth in the all-time tally of longest Senate declamations -- after Strom Thurmond (24 hours, 18 minutes in 1957); Morse (22 hours, 26 minutes in 1953); Robert La Follette Sr. (18 hours in 1908); and Proxmire himself (approximately 19 hours in 1961). It was also agreed that Proxmire's accomplishment was not, technically, a filibuster, because he was not trying to prevent a vote.
The Evening and Beyond
But Proxmire's claims to a place in peroratorical history transcend mere statistics. The most remarkable aspect of his feat may be this: Through all the countless hundreds of thousands of words he uttered between 6:15 Monday evening and 10:27 yesterday morning, he remained continuously in sight of his subject, though sometimes from a distance.
It began with a minimum of grandiosity. Having just finished one of his almost-daily pleas for U.S. ratification of the Genocide Convention, Proxmire began to talk about the national debt, mentioning the intended length of his talk in such a matter-of-fact way that it almost went unnoticed.
"Did the senator state that it is his intention to keep the Senate in session all evening?" asked Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).
"That is correct," replied Proxmire.
"On the debt ceiling bill?" asked Stevens.
"That is right," said Proxmire.
"I see," said Stevens.
About an hour later, Proxmire was voicing concern about the day when the debt reaches a googol. "A googol," he explained, "is 1 with 100 zeros after it. Before that you get to a quintillion, then we go to a sextillion, then a septillion and so forth."
At roughly 7:30 p.m., he was discussing inflation and deficit spending in Weimar Germany, when "it was necessary for a German hausfrau to go to the market with a wheelbarrow full of currency to buy a little bread and a little cheese, enough to keep her family alive."
At 9 p.m. or thereabouts, Proxmire cited the M1 tank as a cuttable budget item, so the nation could stay within his proposal of a $995 billion debt. "This tank goes one mile on four gallons of gasoline," he proclaimed. "Let me repeat that. Not four miles on one gallon. One mile on four gallons . . . A platoon of these tanks would be followed into combat by a convoy of gasoline trucks to fuel it."
At 10:09 p.m., Proxmire yielded to Minority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), and made his only trip off the Senate floor. Byrd spoke for four minutes, reminiscing about an overnight speech of his own, when he had broken the rules by bringing milk and orange juice and had quoted a few lines of verse beginning, "The roses red upon my neighbor's vine." The next day, he said, Hubert Humphrey gave him a bouquet of roses. "I will never forget his having done that."
As Monday gave way to Tuesday, Proxmire intoned against the evils of "off-budget borrowing," and yet another friendly colleague came to his rescue. This time it was Sen. J. James Exon (D-Neb.), who took the floor while Proxmire ate a sandwich.
At about 2 a.m., Proxmire explained why deficit spending had been acceptable policy in the 1930s, and commented: "Those of us who lived through that Great Depression, of course, will never forget it."
Just before 3 a.m., he could be heard declaring: "I think the world of Ed Muskie . . . "
And at 4 a.m.: "The war of 1812 led to another increase in our public debt . . ."
And at 6 a.m.: "I represent the state of Wisconsin. The state of Wisconsin is known as the nation's dairy state."
And at 9 a.m.: "I found over and over again that these programs that are supposed to benefit low-income people -- poor people -- in many cases go to the people who are anything but poor."
At 9:40 a.m., Proxmire lashed into revenue sharing, calling it "revenue we don't have to share . . . "
At 10:10 a.m., he estimated the Chicago Cubs' chances of winning the 1981 World Series as "far better than the chances that we'll have a balanced budget in 1984."
Praise and Thanksgiving
Proxmire remained standing throughout, and a surprisingly high percentage of the words he spoke were his own, usually by way of annotating the various articles and essays handed him by a rotating team of aides. But during the course of his marathon he quoted many sources, including former president Jimmy Carter ("a deeply religious man, a man of great intelligence . . . people feel he will be treated much more kindly by history"), the late senator Paul Douglas ("one of the wisest men who has ever served in this body"), former Federal Reserve Board chairman Arthur Burns ("greatly admired and greatly respected") and John Stuart Mill ("What a great economist he was! What a great philosopher he was! There's his essay on liberty . . . probably the finest essay on liberty that has ever been penned -- and he was a passionate man.").
When it was all over, amid the barrage of taunts, someone asked Proxmire how he was feeling. "I feel pretty good," he said. "Funny thing, I feel much better than I did last night at 9 o'clock or 10 o'clock. I got a second wind. Began to believe what I was saying."