What's unseemly about the wave of editorial chortling over the libel-suit humbling of Sen. William Proxmire is that the press has been an indispensable accomplice in his tawdry Golden Fleece escapades.
Notice, of course, was merited for the senator's getting clipped for $10,000 in an out-of-court settlement of the libel suit brought by a combative researcher who was pilloried by a Golden Fleece in 1975. And it was too delicious to go unnoticed that Proxmire's fealty to thrift in government proved fragile when his lawyers submitted a bill for nearly $125,000. Without a quibble, the guardian of the public purse let the Senate pick it up.
But what also ought to be noticed about the senator's "awards" is that they demonstrate how a shrewd political operator can command wide and favorable attention through clever gimmickry disguised as public service.
Proxmier's monthly allegations of foolish government spending, particularly on scholarly work that lends itself to crude ridicule, are in the long tradition of congressional cavemanship decked out as protection of the public purse. The Wisconsin senator didn't invent the publicity-winning device, nor has he been alone in recent years in dishing out the stuff. However, he has stood out from the congressional pack in his ability to merchandise run-of-the-mill goods to the press, in this case by wrapping them up in monthly productions bearing the catchy title of Golden Fleece awards.
With the spotlight focused on the senator's caustic, sometimes clever, comments concerning each hapless recipient, little or no attention would be paid to the vaildity of his allegations or the primitive anti-intellectualism implicit in his slap-stick comments about university reserach projects. These are only a small portion of the senator's long list of targets, but egghead-baiting has a big constituency in this country, and his assaults on academe inspired some of the most titillating journalistic renditions.
Though only a minuscule portion of Capitol Hill's press releases gets conveyed to the public at large, each Golden Fleece announcement was widely treated as one of those routine public events that automatically compel notice -- regardless of their substance. If the spirits of "balance" happened to be present, the recipient would be granted the opportunity to say the abuse was undeserved. But the overwhelming impression created by the awards was of wrongful or absurd conduct nailed by the penny-watching senator from Wisconsin.
In the case of the researcher who successfully fought back -- Ronald Hutchinson, an experimental psychologist whose researches were highly valued by some of the pickiest of government research agencies -- much merriment was evoked over his studies of how monkeys respond to frustration. What went nearly unnoticed was that the research reflected Navy and NASA interest in how operators of highly complex equipment might be psychologically affected by suddenly unresponsive controls or other stressful mishaps.
As with many projects singled out for ridicule by Proxmire, the monkey research was given snickering tretment, and the press lapped up the senator's assertion that "it's time for the federal government to get out of this monkey business."
In view of the senator's demonstrated success in scaring the timid leadership of the scientific community, attention ought to be given to what's known among research administrators as the "Proxmire factor" -- shorthand for playing it safe in formulating and titling reserach projects. In a period when leaps of imagination in the sciences -- particularly in the social sciences -- warrant encouragement, the effect of Proxmirism has been to put a premium on the avoidance of trouble.
It's easy to chuckle now about a Senate bully's getting his comeuppance from an obscure victim, but we ought also to be reflecting on how and why Proxmire's Golden Fleece nonsense was accorded such celebrity in the first place.