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Frank Lautenberg, Senate’s Last WWII Veteran, Remembered as a ‘Fighter’

June 3, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The U.S. Senate lost one of its longest serving members and its last World War II veteran. New Jersey's Sen. Frank Launtenberg, who served five terms, died of pneumonia at the age of 89. Herb Jackson of The Record joins Gwen Ifill to look back at the Democratic senator's legacy and explore who may replace him.

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: The Senate lost one of its longest-serving members and its last World War II veteran.

Flags flew at half-staff over the U.S. Capitol, honoring New Jersey Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who died early today of pneumonia at a New York hospital.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid:

SEN. HARRY REID, D-Nev.: Few people in the history of this institution have contributed as much to our nation and to the United States Senate as Frank Lautenberg. Success story is really what the American dream is all about. He is the last World War II veteran having served in the Senate. We don’t have any World War II veterans anymore, Mr. President. His death is a great loss for this institution in many, many different ways.

GWEN IFILL: Lautenberg was a millionaire businessman, first elected to the Senate in 1982 at the age of 58. He’s known for pushing through a 1989 law that banned smoking on most U.S. flights. And he was also the driving force behind a 1984 law that raised the national drinking age to 21.

He discussed it that year on the NewsHour.

SEN. FRANK LAUTENBERG, D-N.J.: I don’t think the Congress is going to back off. We see a movement in this country to abolish drunk driving.

GWEN IFILL: Lautenberg left the Senate in 2000 after 18 years. But two years later, he came out of retirement as a last-minute replacement for scandal-ridden Sen. Robert Torricelli, who pulled out just five weeks before Election Day. Lautenberg won easily and returned to the Senate at age 78.

Four months ago, he announced he would retire a second time after his fifth term ended in 2015. He cast one of his final votes in April, appearing on the Senate floor in a wheelchair to support a gun control bill that ultimately failed. It’s now up to New Jersey’s Republican governor, Chris Christie, to fill out Lautenberg’s term.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE, R-N.J.: I think the best way to describe Frank Lautenberg and the way he would probably want to be described to all of you today is as a fighter. So, today is a sad day for the people of New Jersey.

GWEN IFILL: Frank Lautenberg was 89 years old.

For more on the senator’s legacy and who might replace him, we turn to Herb Jackson, Washington correspondent for New Jersey’s Record newspaper.

Welcome, Herb Jackson.

Five terms, the oldest senator, what would he say his legacy was?

HERB JACKSON, The Record: Well, I mean, he did talk about his legacy when he announced he was going to retire, environmental protection, the domestic violence law that prohibits abusers from getting handguns.

He fought for mass transit. There’s a train station in New Jersey named after him. He was fighting very hard to get a new train tunnel under the Hudson River, and that was one of the things he and Gov. Christie fought about. So, he’s got a lot of different areas, but he’s an old-school liberal. He came up in that era. He didn’t think government was too big. And he thought that it was supposed to be there to help the weak and the poor.

GWEN IFILL: It wasn’t an accident that one of his final big votes was on that gun control background check bill.


Well, he had been ill much of the year. He had been telling the Senate leadership that if there was a close vote and they needed him to be there, he would do it. And he took that vote. It was for the background check bill, which was one of the things that he had been championing for quite a number of years since it expired from — during the Bush administration.

So it’s been around, for him, as an issue for a long time.

GWEN IFILL: I think a lot of people could probably leave the Senate and not be able to point to things that actually had an impact on people’s lives, but in his case not only gun control issues, but also environmental protection and airplane — banning smoking on airplanes, and lowering the drinking age all had a big effect.

HERB JACKSON: The speed limit, things like that. He was really one of those people who thought government should stop you from doing things that are bad.

GWEN IFILL: Now, take us back to 2000, when he decided to — or somehow was drafted or requested to come back after he had already resigned — 2002. What happened there?

HERB JACKSON: Well, I mean, he retired, and then immediately hated it. He didn’t like not being a senator.

And he sat through two years watching his friend Jon Corzine get his feet wet in the Senate. And all of a sudden, Bob Torricelli started to implode. And party leaders needed somebody in September of the election year who could get on the ballot quickly, raise money to run, and, in fact, put his own money into running, because he was a millionaire. Lautenberg came back. Everybody thought he would be there for one term. Then he ran again in 2008, won again.

GWEN IFILL: Frank Lautenberg was a lot of things. Among them is he was a self-made millionaire. He was also — or had a reputation of being kind of a tough politician. Is that — was that Jersey politics or was that — would that apply anywhere?

HERB JACKSON: He was a fighter. He liked to fight. He liked to call Dick Cheney a chicken hawk. He liked to get in and scrap with people.

He barked a lot. But he also had friends on the other side of the aisle. I don’t think he was a bipartisan kind of guy in any real sense, although just a few weeks — just a week-and-a-half ago, he did get a bipartisan agreement on one of the bills he wanted to get done before his term ended on harmful products that are in everyday household products, chemicals.

GWEN IFILL: And now we know that there is going to be some discussion that hasn’t been decided tonight about his succession, what that will look like. That’s up to the governor, right?

HERB JACKSON: Well, it’s complicated.

The governor gets to name an appointee. How long that appointee serves, there’s two conflicting statutes. Possibly — possibly, there will be an election this year. Possibly, there will be an election in next November. Or Christie can call a special election on his own time frame. And that comes — what comes into play there is, Christie is also on the ballot in November. Does he want a potential Senate candidate with more millions of dollars to come in and pull out Democratic votes?

But who does he appoint? Does he appoint somebody that satisfies the more moderate wing of the Republican Party that he represents, or does he appoint somebody from the right who is — who may be making Christie more appealing if he runs for president in 2016?

GWEN IFILL: Once again, all eyes on New Jersey.

Herb Jackson of The Record, thank you very much.

HERB JACKSON: You’re welcome.