Frank Lautenberg a 'throwback' senator who never sought the spotlight (+video)
Frank Lautenberg, who died Monday, was always an outsider in the Senate, where his businessman's sensibilities led to impressive achievements but clashes with leadership.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who died Monday, was a longtime senator who never became a Senate insider, the last of the World War II veterans in the US Senate, and one of the very few lawmakers to ever return to the Senate after a retirement.Skip to next paragraph
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Despite never chairing a full committee, Senator Lautenberg built up a formidable legislative legacy, including legislation to ban smoking on most domestic flights and to raise the legal drinking age to 21.
After 9/11, he relentlessly pushed for higher spending on homeland security and, especially, on the transportation and environmental issues concerning his home state of New Jersey.
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He also took on powerful gun, tobacco, and alcohol lobbies over his nearly five terms in the Senate, including a dramatic return to the Senate floor in April to back President Obama’s gun control measures, while struggling with illness. (The measures failed.)
Yet his commitments were more to liberal values and causes than to party or party leaders. Despite serving nearly 28 years in the Senate, he never broke into Senate leadership circles, where what counted most was raising campaign funds and loyalty to a party line.
“He was a throwback to an earlier era,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in New Jersey. “Leaving the leadership to others and avoiding the spotlight, he seemed content, from what we know, to build a legacy based on his legislative achievements.”
“Today, senators all seem to scramble for leadership positions and to get some airtime on television," he adds. “He was like the old conservative Southern Democrats using their committee positions, quietly, to push for their causes in the 1950s and ’60s.”
Like many senators who come to the US Senate from a highly successful business career, Lautenberg found the clubby, slow-moving culture of the Senate to be somewhat of a shock.
The son of Polish and Russian immigrants, Lautenberg as a teenager worked nights to help support his family after his father’s death. After World War II, he studied economics at Columbia University and later helped launch Automatic Data Processing, now one of the world’s largest data-processing companies.
In 1982, with the help of the team that would later launch Bill Clinton’s first presidential run, Lautenberg spent $4 million of his own money and upset Rep. Millicent Fenwick (R) of New Jersey, a popular icon then viewed as a shoo-in for the US Senate seat held by Democratic Sen. Harrison Williams, who was convicted in a federal corruption probe. A scorching ad campaign suggested that Ms. Fenwick, at 72, was too old for the race and unfit to serve.
“Many saw it as ungallant for Lautenberg to have challenged this woman who was immortalized in Doonesbury,” says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “But he realized that, because she had become a kind of folk heroine, he would need to take off the gloves. It was a very hard-hitting campaign, and the age issue did influence a lot of voters.”
But that first campaign left a cloud that followed Lautenberg right up until his last race, when his primary opponent, US Rep. Robert Andrews (D), ran ads suggesting that Lautenberg, at 84, was also too old for the job. The voters did not agree, and Lautenberg won that primary race, 59 to 35 percent.
Still, Lautenberg never became a senator’s senator, never learned when to stay silent or how to give colleagues the political cover seen as essential to maintaining a majority control of the Senate. He didn’t go out of his way to charm the press corps or rush the television cameras.