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Senator William Proxmire


August 27, 1957

Senator William Proxmire

On August 27, 1957, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson breathed a long sigh of relief. A special election in Wisconsin to fill the Senate seat recently vacated by the death of Republican senator Joseph McCarthy had been considered too close to call. It pitted a popular three-term former governor—running as a moderate "Eisenhower Republican"—against a decidedly liberal 41-year-old Democratic state assemblyman who had lost three previous statewide races. Wisconsin had not elected a Democrat to the Senate in the past 25 years.

That all changed on August 27, 1957, with the landslide victory of William Proxmire. Political observers of both parties correctly read Proxmire's surprise victory as portending bad news for Republicans in the upcoming 1958 mid-term elections—particularly with only 11 Democratic Senate seats to be defended as against 21 for the Republicans. With a slim 49-to-47 majority, Lyndon Johnson had feared that the imminent demise of a seriously ill Democrat would permit a Republican governor to appoint a GOP replacement, allowing Vice President Richard Nixon to organize the next session under his party's control.

Under normal circumstances, the Senate should not have been in session in late August. It customarily adjourned for the year by the end of July. Instead, a heated debate over the 1957 Civil Rights Act found most members in town as news of Proxmire's stunning triumph reached the Capitol. At that moment, South Carolina Democrat Strom Thurmond, an ardent opponent of federal civil rights legislation, was preparing to launch an oration that would become the longest one-person speech in Senate history.

On August 28, after a 14-hour workday, Johnson affixed a fresh carnation to his lapel and traveled to National Airport to personally welcome Proxmire. Returning to the Chamber with his prize in tow, he asked unanimous consent that the oath of office be administered. "I object," thundered Republican Leader William Knowland. Knowland insisted on waiting until Wisconsin's Republican governor found it convenient to send Proxmire's election certificate. This triggered a 30-minute shouting match between the two leaders. Knowland prevailed and the ceremony was scheduled for the following day at 10 a.m.

Strom Thurmond, nearing the end of his soon-to-be 24-hour-and-18-minute filibuster, yielded for the oath-taking after getting an agreement that he would not lose his right to the floor. This allowed Senator Proxmire to cast his first vote for the Civil Rights Act. His final vote proved equally dramatic. On October 18, 1988, at the end of a distinguished 32-year Senate career, Proxmire cast his 10,252nd consecutive roll-call vote—a record that still stands today.