In the morning, the Band-Aids wrapped around his fingers are fresh and his hand still has some vitality. Then he moves into position outside the flower shed at the Wisconsin State Fair and begins a day of handshaking, pressing new flesh every three seconds.
Meet Edward Proxmire, the maverick Democratic senior senator from Wisconsin who gives "Golden Fleece" awards and washes his underwear in an office sink, running for his fifth six-year term.
Edward Proxmire? That's right, although he's better known as William, or Bill. When Edward William Proxmire was 6 years old, he was captivated by silent film star Bill Hart and insisted on dropping his first name.
Now he is recognized by 48 percent of those interviewed in one Gallup poll, not because of his legislative victories but because of his eccentricities.
He is known as:
The dogged warrior against government waste, awarding monthly "Golden Fleece" awards to such government projects as a Federal Aviation Administration study of 78 body measurements of airline stewardess trainees, and a study by the National Institute of Mental Health on Peruvian brothels.
The only senator not to have missed a roll call vote since 1965.
The first senator to have a hair transplant.
The former Yale University boxing champion who does 100 push-ups every morning and then runs 4.7 miles to work.
A politician of such seeming modesty that his biographical sketch in the Congressional Directory reads simply, "William Proxmire, Wisconsin."
The populist who in 1976 campaigned without contributions. He spent $197, all his own money. Much of that paid for stationery and postage to return contributions from other people. He plans to do it again and is overwhelmingly favored to win.
The tireless campaigner who returns to Wisconsin nearly every weekend, even when elections are far away, to shake hands with voters at football games, fairs and parades.
Hailed by supporters as a man of the people, fighting the spendthrifts in Washington on issues ranging from the supersonic transport to food stamps, Proxmire cultivates an image of parsimony and populism that appears to sit very well with voters. "He's the most popular vote-getter in the history of the state," said former Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson.
But his critics assail Proxmire for demogoguery and hypocrisy.
While acknowledging that he is tireless, honest and smart, many colleagues say he is obsessed with publicity and spineless to the point of never taking a stand that is unpopular with voters.
Proxmire is a powerful figure because his 25 years in the Senate have made him a senior member of the banking, appropriations and joint economic committees. The paradox is that he remains the quintessential outsider, spurning friendships and tradition, and thus forfeiting some of that power.
The lonely runner is a metaphor that suits him well.
Political scientist Ralph K. Huitt wrote in an article in the American Political Science Review that Proxmire runs on "a driving ambition to succeed, to which almost everything else in his life is subordinated, coupled with a puritan's belief in the sanctity of unremittent work."
Voted "biggest grind" in prep school, he also was a brilliant student. Since he was a teen-ager, he has struggled and sweated to stay fit. He is one of the best-prepared senators and among the most articulate in debate.
"You've got to run, run, run," he once said, and he was not just talking of about getting to work.
Proxmire, 66, grew up in Lake Forest, Ill., and attended Yale and Harvard Business School.
In 1949 he decided to become a journalist as a steppingstone to politics. Methodical as ever, he applied to newspapers throughout the Midwest and in Washington and Oregon, and settled in the Republican bastion of Wisconsin.
He was quickly fired from the newspaper in Madison for, among other offenses, pointing out the shortcomings of an article written by the publisher. He then joined the Union Labor News and, almost as soon as he was eligible to vote in the state, won a seat in the state legislature.
One of his first acts was an effort to cut money from the state budget to buy fountain pens for Wisconsin officials.
After living in the state just three years, he ran for governor and was defeated. Again in 1954 and 1956, Proxmire ran for governor and lost to Walter J. Kohler.
In 1957, Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy died and Proxmire pitted himself against Kohler once again in the special election for the seat.
When Kohler derided him as a "three-time loser," Proxmire fought back. "If all those who have ever lost in business, love, sports or politics will vote for me as one who knows what it is to lose and fight back," Proxmire responded, "I will be glad to give my opponent the support of those lucky voters who have never lost anything."
For the first six months of his Senate career, he was a model freshman, diligent, helpful and seen but not heard. His patience soon was exhausted, however, and he decided to emulate mavericks Wayne Morse of Oregon and Paul Douglas of Illinois. He introduced amendments without consulting his party leadership, he spoke when he wanted to, he filibustered and, most heretical, he even criticized the leadership of then-Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson.
Wisconsin's voters were comfortable with such independence. The Progressive movement was born in Wisconsin at the beginning of this century with "Fighting Bob" La Follette and continued with his sons. The La Follettes were independent-minded and uncontrolled by any party, as was "Tailgunner Joe" McCarthy in a different way.
Proxmire has focused on government waste and banking legislation. As chairman of the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee during the Carter administration, he pushed many banking and consumer protection bills through Congress.
Stuart E. Eizenstat, President Carter's domestic affairs adviser, said "while we had our disagreements you couldn't ask for a brighter guy, or anyone more accessible or fair."
Proxmire's bete noire is government spending on almost anything but dairy price supports.
He has voted for cuts in defense and food stamps and almost everywhere in between. He consistently receives the highest rating in the Senate from the National Taxpayers Union.
"Anything with a dollar sign, he's going to oppose," said a Senate staffer. "It's almost an obsession."
In Proxmire's first reelection bid, in 1958, his Republican opponent and then-Vice President Nixon campaigned against him, charging he was a big spender. They called him "billion-buck Bill," and there were murmurs about a trip he took to West Germany as part of a Senate delegation.
Proxmire is not one to leave himself open twice to the same criticism. Since then he has not traveled abroad or shown any other signs of being a free spender.
In the last four years, he has returned $910,612 to the Treasury from his payroll and office allowances, 24 percent of the total, because he hires fewer staff and spends less than he is permitted.He eats at McDonald's on the road.
This showy thriftiness, and Proxmire's sometimes moralizing tone when denouncing waste, invites charge of hypocrisy. Outside Wisconsin, he is criticized for lavishing money on the dairy industry, fighting hard for the milk price supports so important to Wisconsin's economy -- and in its elections.
When he lost a libel suit filed by a disgruntled scientist who had received a Golden Fleece award, Proxmire let the Senate pick up the $125,000 tab for legal fees.
Stung by criticism for that, he has donated book royalties and fees for radio and television shows to the Treasury to help repay the sum.
When Proxmire filibustered 16 hours, 12 minutes last September to delay enactment of the new debt ceiling, reporters promptly asked him how it felt to cost taxpayers an additional $64,500 by keeping the Capitol open and the Congressional Record churning.
For 15 years, Proxmire has made a speech each morning the Senate sits in which he urges adoption of the U.N. convention against genocide. For the past few months, he also has been calling every morning for limits on nuclear arms.
An informal survey of 15 Congressional Records this year indicates that Proxmire expends an average of slightly more than one page per day on such speeches not aimed at the day's legislaton.
At $456 per page multiplied by an average of 170 days in session, these speeches cost about $77,520 per year.
But almost everything he does plays well in Milwaukee. Colleagues on the Hill say Proxmire almost never takes a stand that will cost him support.
"He pays attention to the direction the wind is blowing," said one longtime colleague. "He's a perfectionist at determining which way the wind is blowing and which way it's going to go next."
A Wisconsin congressmen sympathetic to Proxmire said, "Bill is not a leader in that regard. 'There go the people. I am their leader. I must follow them,' is kind of his motto."
Some observers say Proxmire was shaken by the 1980 election, in which fellow Democrat Nelson was defeated. Since then, Proxmire has shifted his stand on the balanced budget amendment (he was against it) and has become more supportive of military spending. The Milwaukee Journal reported that he was "trying to out-Reagan President Reagan."
But some say Proxmire always was so unpredictable that it is difficult to say he has changed positions. He always had a conservative streak, and now he positions himself with the New Right on such issues as prayer in public schools, restrictions on abortion and tuition tax credits.
In Wisconsin he is a legend who has changed the way politicians must campaign. He was the first Democrat in many years to win statewide office. Now Wisconsin is primarily Democratic. Once he cut a lonely figure out by the flower shed at the state fair, shaking 10,000 hands a day. Now it is almost expected that ambitious politicians will press flesh there.
After nine hours of handshaking, stopping only once for a 20-minute lunch, Proxmire's right hand was red and creased and wrinkled. The Band-Aids were ragged, and it looked like the gnarled hand of a 90-year-old.
"Well, that's all for today," he said brightly, and with one last "howdy" to a constituent he disappeared toward the exit of the state fair and a dinner at McDonald's.