A Memory of Senator Proxmire
I watched the Inauguration and Lunch, and await the Parade. I have nothing to add to the festivities, save that it was a great speech. It is also, appropriately, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I have nothing as valuable to add as undoubtedly an army of other, more eloquent writers will say. So I will pass on that. Instead, let me tell a story that only I can tell, though it is a tale without a moral.
This has been in my head for the past couple of days, and I don’t know that it will have a point, but we shall see.
When I was at TCU, I was quartered in Tom Brown, B301. And Tom Brown Hall and Jarvis Hall had formed a semi-collective virtual “coed” dorm. At the time, co-ed dorms were the great kerfuffle, Vietnam having just wound down, along with whether holding the doors open for women was requisite chivalry or oppression. To Jarvis Hall feminists, it was invariably the latter. Tom Brown, on the other hand, had its own library, which, hilariously, contained the pledge books of all the fraternities. I presume Jarvis had the same for the sororities.
It was an oddly stratified campus, with the athletes getting a brand-newly refurbished superdorm (which they regularly trashed) with pool tables, etc. The Fraternities and Sororities were all officially ON campus, in a new winding stone-building row on a chunk of the ever-shrinking golf course — along with Brachman Hall, which was the official “coed” dorm, which meant that Brachman HOUSED men and women in the same building, if you didn’t count the three-inch-thick fire door that separated the wings and was always locked — a literal firewall between the sexes, and cynically used by TCU’s recruiting arm to fill in the little college evaluation box that asked “Coed Dorms?” with “YES!”
Yeah. The TCU Administration was as enthusiastic about coed dorms as today’s Republicans are about Obamacare.
TB-J, as we were known, was filled with the actual Timothy Bottoms in “The Paper Chase” students, and they actually had their own seminars and classes scheduled (there was a philosophy class in the library, which was right through the wall from my bed.)
Timothy Bottoms, Paper Chase = TCU minus the jackets & ties
And so, when the Speakers’ Series brought in an author or lecturer, TB-J would have an informal “after” reception for said speaker, with perhaps 20 or 30 TB-J (or anyone else, but, frankly, the athletes and frat-rats were more interested in pursuing the Nieman-Marcus models who attended the university and aspired to be a Tri-Delt, the Alpha Female sorority on Campus) students.
As a result, I had long one-on-one talks with Gene Roddenberry, Alvin Toffler, Erich von Daniken and others, plus the one I don’t even know why I was there for, which was Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin. You just had to stick around when everybody wandered off at the end. Before that, I just hung to the periphery and observed, already in writer’s discipline without yet knowing nor desiring that I was going to write for a living.
This is not meant as brag or bray but I realize that I’m the only one who can tell the story, although I will leave it up to the Reader to decide what it means. I will recount what I observed as clearly as I can recall.
Bill Proxmire was a famous Democratic Senator from Wisconsin at the time. Wisconsin Historical Society:
… Proxmire won his first major political victory in 1957 in a special election to fill the seat of Sen. Joseph McCarthy — the Republican censured for his attacks on people he accused of being communists. Re-elected in 1958, Proxmire went on to overwhelming victories in 1964, 1970, 1976 and 1982…. (Wisconsin Historical Society)
He was most famous for his monthly “Golden Fleece” award, which was, for many years, a meme in the Three-Network Daze of television. It made good TV, and, once a month, Bill Proxmire would name some Federal Program that looked absurd, at least superficially. Many were. Many weren’t. But it was a great PR device and Americans who watched the evening news were used to that little tag of Proxmire’s Golden Fleece just before Walter Cronkite intoned “And that’s the way it is …”
Now, you must understand that I was a fish out of water at TCU: member of an old Abolitionist family at a school founded by Secessionists. A hater of the Dallas Cowboys since the first and second (the Ice Bowl) NFL Championship games with the Vince Lombardi Green Bay Packers. A Republican among Democrats, most especially on the Debate Team, of whom I have written elsewhere.
And for three long years, I learned to listen appreciatively to opinions and sentiments that I in no wise shared. When I arrived the Dallas Cowboys fans were still celebrating having won the 1972 Superbowl , and I spent my first year in Texas with bite-marks on my tongue*.
[* In 1976, I had the distinct pleasure of watching these selfsame fans in opposite, glum, mode, having lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers 21–17. So, all things come to he who waits, or, time wounds all heels, according to your theol0gical bent.]
And, if you like over-the-top bragging, high-pitched rebel squeals and drunken brays in a Southern nasal accent ( e.g. “LOVE them Cowboys!”, “Super Dallas Super Cowboys!”, “Yee-haw” and so forth), that was the best place in the entire Universe to be (although in all other senses, Fort Worth and Dallas are bitter rivals, not the least of which being Fort Worth TCU versus Dallas SMU). If not, the opposite.
The celebrations continued a full two years later …
It was good training, in retrospect.
Even then I noticed that while most people I knew had very detailed and precise political philosophies, they were not thought through, and were, among the vast majority of Democrats and the very small minority of Republicans (this was in a day that no Republican could be elected in Texas, which was changing, with former Texas Governor John Connally’s defection to Richard Nixon’s GOP) almost always cookie cutter. I had begun to understand that, while most people know very well exactly what they’re for or against (as, say “Second Amendment Rights”), they have adopted those views without ever thinking them up or through.
They have put their political beliefs on like a suit of clothes, and, sitting at TB-J’s after-speech soirée with Senator Proxmire, I could predict the questions based on the cl0thing. In a school of neatly pressed shirts, Tom Brown were the fellows with faded flare jeans and wild t-shirts. In a school of fashion models*, the Jarvis women dressed straight Gloria Steinem.
[* I kid you not, TCU even had a contract with the Miss America Pageant that no matter who won “Miss Texas” she would always be a student at “TCU” — as North Texas State University’s (in Denton, 30 miles north of Fort Worth and TCU) Phyllis George found out.
Early life [Wikipedia] — George was born to Diantha Cogdell and James George in Denton, Texas. She attended the University of North Texas for three years until crowned Miss Texas in 1971. At that time,Texas Christian University awarded scholarships to Miss Texas honorees. As a result, Phyllis left UNT** and enrolled at TCU for several weeks until winning the Miss America crown later that fall. She is a member of Zeta Tau Alpha sorority. George won the 1971 Miss America pageant…
** If you note that acronym, you’ll understand why they changed to NTSU. One letter added to a sweatshirt was too juvenile a stunt not to be wildly popular with North Texas male teenagers.]
The Jarvis hall was drooping into a sort of shabby elegance, with soft yellow lighting from the aging ‘Forties light sconces, with good industrial easy chairs and sofas. The room was filled but not packed. Proxmire was a Senatorial exemplar of the Distinguished Gentleman, elegant pin-stripedsuit, elegant coiffure (top, evidently not entirely his own), graceful in gesture and pleasantly modulated in senatorial voice.
And all of the questions were pretty much political rote as were Senator Proxmire’s. As I said, if you looked at the clothing style of the questioner, you could pretty much guess the question in advance. If you watched the evening news, you pretty much already knew the answer.
As I’ve noted, my debate coach, James I. Luck, taught us to discard the ephemeral arguments, focus on the core issues and look for the contradictions.
Again, I did not know why I was there. Probably because my girlfriend and wife-to-be (also not known at the time) was busy with an evening class, or I didn’t want to be working on physics or calculus problems. I knew who Proxmire was and I had no real desire to see him, but I attended the speech at the old now-demolished Student Union (where I began my vocation) and thence to Jarvis Hall’s parlor, where I listened and watched and, after listening carefully, I spotted a contradiction.
(I do not remember what it was, and it’s probably not important, those zeitgeist issues having moved into the forgotten ephemera of history.)
I carefully considered my question, and I asked: Senator Proxmire?
He acknowledged me. I asked my question, slowly and carefully: “You say such and such, but then you say so and so. Isn’t that a contradiction?”
Yeah. I know. Bad boy. An even number of stereoscopically linked eyeballs rotated in my direction and clicked onto me like a laser-sight painting a target.
And then Senator Proxmire began to speak.
He was a Senator, and I had no expectation that this would be a devastating question. But I DID feel the discomfiture of the audience, you know, that JERK.
An odd or even number of necks swiveled forty-five degrees to the Senator.
I had seen the small flicker as he recognized the import of the question and he spoke honeyed words, as adoring eyes gratefully drank in his glowing answer.
Except it was BS. I knew it, and he knew it, and we made brief eye contact, and then he finished and I made a motion of assent, even though he knew and I knew that he hadn’t answered the question at all. And, from the flicker of recognition that passed between us when I equally nebulously nodded my agreement (i.e. “I know that we agree that a) you answered A question and b ) it wasn’t the question asked and c) we both know it) I recognized that while all might be convinced that the pesky question had been put to bed, neither Senator Proxmire nor I were, and that he recognized that I could have pressed the point but decided NOT to.
All were happy.
Which was WHY I chose not to. I had the answer to my question: yes, it was contradictory. Yes he knew it. And that was that.
No point in being a jerk just to be a jerk. The cookie cutter people were mollified and believed that Senator Proxmire had adequately dismantled the question. Sleeping dogs and all that.
Official Senate Portrait
More questions. More answers. No more moments of tension. But I had momentarily challenged Professor Kingsfield and the gathered were uncomfortable with me for that. Ah well, I hadn’t intended to be there, anyway. But, as Pr0xmire would be gone on the morrow, the offended would remain to remember my transgression.
But it was what happened afterwards that I have been remembering for some reason, a B-B rattling around in the boxcar of my mind.
When it was over, he all but sprung from his seat, and was across the small space almost before I could rise, as all stood. He grasped my hand, shook it warmly and said, “You have a great future in politics, young man.”
I thanked him and knew it to be genuine on his part, although I still do not know why. I do know that the disapproving eyes fixed on me again, because it seemed unfair that Senator Proxmire would reward me for my boorishness.
But he did me a great favor, in retrospect. Since none of it computed, none of it was stored, and there were no repercussions, nor, seemingly remembrance 0f the incident.
This mem0ry may be all that survives. But at least it’s proven sturdier than the hall in which he spoke to the TCU community that evening.
The end of the hall he spoke in
It was like Magritte’s famous experiment where he greeted a gentleman at the door who had an appointment with his wife, and as he took the man’s hat and coat, kicked the fellow in the ass. Then acted as if nothing had happened. To Magritte’s surprise, the fellow ALSO acted as though the event never occurred and the event was neatly deleted from historical memory.
rené magritte – ‘not to be reproduced’
(La reproduction interdite, 1937)
Now, I believe that what he might have meant was that I listened, I asked a pointed question and then had the good grace to back off out of politesse, politeness and being politic that characterized Washington in those bygone days. Oh, and perhaps that he appreciated that. I cannot say with any certitude. I only know that he did what he did and I was rather surprised by it.
At the time, I could only reflect silently and cringe but I’m a Republican! and, yes, TB-Jers, I feel your disapproval. But I already knew that politics was NOT where I was ever going to go. I did run for office once, and honestly as the intention of bringing out what I thought was an important issue. But I have never been drawn in that direction, except as someone who has always paid attention to the nuts and bolts of things.
Which is why I don’t much think about it, except that something in the last few days has driven it into my memory, a Roto Rooter jingle that I can’t get out of my mind.
Senator Proxmire passed away on 2005, and his “Golden Fleece” award has been appropriated by his ideological friends and enemies alike over the decades since his retirement.
Tom Brown was torn down, and bricks were sold to former TB residents. The anti-fraternity fraternity of GDI’s (God Damned Independents) lives on in mem0ry only. Jarvis has been renovated into an Administrative building. The entire campus has been rebuilt with winning football team money and life moves on.
But I remember Senator Proxmire’s warm handshake, and that I had known better than he that politics was never my desire, nor my future. But I appreciate the kind words, nonetheless. He was not prescient that I’d be a politician, but he did seem to understand that I was destined to be a Progressive Democrat.*
And that’s a story for the fifty-seventh presidential inauguration, which is, coincidentally, the number of my solar orbits.
No matter what you might think about our President, today was a proud day for this notion that we call “America.” We have lived up to our ideals in some respects, at least.
And, a long time ago, we could hold an informal public meeting with a politician, disagree but agree that discomfiting an entire group just to make a cranky point had no point in reasonable politics. So, a belated and disembodied “Thanks” Senator Proxmire. Requiescat in pace.
Coincidentally, I saw the Senator on the floor of the United States Senate the following summer, from the gallery in the United States Senate, back before they broadcast it on TV. When they used to actually debate. You know, back when it was “The Greatest Deliberative Body on Earth™.”
And that’s it.
A writer, published author, novelist, literary critic and political observer for a quarter of a quarter-century more than a quarter-century, Hart Williams has lived in the American West for his entire life. Having grown up in Wyoming, Kansas and New Mexico, an honorary Texan, Clown (ditto) and a veteran of Hollywood, Mr. Williams currently lives in Oregon, along with an astonishing amount of pollen. He has a lively blog His Vorpal Sword. This is cross-posted from his blog