Goodbye to my friend, my role model and the greatest public servant I know, New Jersey Democrat Senator Frank Lautenberg, who died Monday at age 89.
Goodbye to the last member of the Greatest Generation in the United States Senate and the last of the liberal lions.
Goodbye to the man who is likely responsible for saving more lives than any other politician of his generation.
In 2000, Lautenberg retired from the senate seat he loved so dearly and instantly regretted it.
After all, this was the man who had authored laws that prevented tens of thousands of deaths from drunk driving and from second hand smoke and who saved countless lives by authoring legislation that banned those convicted of domestic violence from buying guns.
Resting on his laurels was not in his DNA.
Lautenberg once told me that the two years he was away from the senate were among the most miserable of his life. “I’m not the guy to retire to Florida and play golf,” he said. “I’m happiest when I’m working on something meaningful.”
He returned to the Senate in 2003 and spent the last decade of his life giving it meaning. A World War II veteran from an impoverished family who went to college thanks to the GI bill, he authored legislation that created a new GI bill for our veterans. He was a tireless champion on behalf of our troops and victims of terror. Our nation is safer today thanks to his work.
Most importantly, Lautenberg had great moral clarity about his views. A self-made millionaire, his ability to self-finance campaigns made him immune to lobbying by powerful interests, a rarity in today’s Washington. Once called a “swamp dog” by a rival, he relished a bare-knuckled political fight. A lightening rod for conservatives, he believed that he was in politics to make a difference, not to make friends.
He and I were driving through Paterson, New Jersey several years ago, when he asked his driver to take a detour and show me the street where he had lived as a child. At the time, Paterson was home to the silk industry, where his father had worked in the mills and where he grew up in poverty during the Depression, sharing bath water with his family. A few miles away was the headquarters of Automated Data Processing, the payroll company Lautenberg founded and which made him a millionaire.
To him, the two were inextricably entwined. Some politicians spend a great deal of time talking about the American Dream. Lautenberg lived it and he wanted to make sure he provided others with the opportunity to live it too.
When Lautenberg announced a few months ago that this senate term would be his last, those of us who knew him were concerned about the effect retirement would have on him. He was no more likely to want to spend time in Florida playing golf at 90 than he would have been at 78. And despite his unfathomable love for attending Lady Gaga concerts in his spare time, there was nothing that he would have done in retirement that would have provided him with the fulfillment he derived for fighting on behalf of what he thought was right in the United States Senate.
So once the initial shock and devastation of his passing has cleared, I am relieved that Frank Lautenberg died while working on issues that gave him meaning. He will be spared having to watch the battles from the sidelines of retirement, fought by others while knowing that he was better equipped to fight them himself.
Thank you, Senator, for doing what you thought was right and not politically expedient. And though you may be gone, many others are alive today because of what you did to give your life meaning.