New Jersey’s Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who earned a reputation as a liberal titan during his three decades in the Senate, was remembered Wednesday for his sense of humor, courage, and tenacity by friends and family.
“He was a man for his time. His story was an American story,” said Sen. Robert Menendez, Lautenberg’s colleague in the Senate, in his eulogy. “But in his heart, and for his lifetime, he was a man from New Jersey.”
Lautenberg passed away Monday at age 89, he had been the oldest member of the Senate and was its last remaining World War II veteran. Vice President Joe Biden, his wife Jill, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and her former aide, Huma Abedin, sat together in the second row at the service held at the Park Avenue Synagogue Wednesday.
Born in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1924 to Jewish immigrant parents from Poland and Russia, Lautenberg overcame humble beginnings to serve in the Army Signal Corps in World War II, before using the postwar G.I. Bill to attend Columbia University. It was this experience, Lautenberg said later, that made him a strong supporter of veterans’ benefits in the Senate.
After a successful career in business, Lautenberg “wanted to give something back” said Menendez, “which is why he ran for office, and why the people of New Jersey kept electing him.”
As a five-term U.S. senator, Lautenberg championed a variety of liberal causes, pushing through a provision to establish a national drinking age of 21, as well as a smoking ban on all commercial airline flights. Lautenberg’s daughter, Ellen, reminded funeral attendees that her father was once himself a smoker.
He was also a staunch supporter of passenger railroads, sponsoring legislation that nearly doubled Amtrak’s subsidy, as well as another project to build a commuter rail tunnel between New Jersey and Manhattan. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who was at Wednesday’s service, killed the project in 2011 over concerns that it was too expensive.
Hillary Clinton remembered Lautenberg as “an honorary member of the women’s senator club,” as well as a fierce advocate for human rights. The senator pushed for a 1990 law that gave refugee status to people from historically persecuted groups, without requiring them to prove that they had been singled out.
Clinton remembered watching Lautenberg greet the first wave of Kosovo refugees who had fled a Serbian terror campaign in 1999. “Here he was again,” she said, “representing the best of who we are as Americans.”
In his final months, Lautenberg appeared in wheelchair to vote in favor of a comprehensive gun control package, which was ultimately defeated. He had a strong record of championing tighter gun laws, including a 1996 measure that prohibited domestic violence offenders from owning a firearm.
“It’s not where you sit that counts, it’s where you stand,” said Hillary Clinton in her eulogy of Lautenberg, remembering what her former colleague would tell her during back-to-back Senate votes that would often span many hours.
“He did stand with those families who wanted to keep their kids from toxic chemicals,” she said. “He stood proudly with the working people of New Jersey, trying to provide for their families…he stood with the riders of Amtrak…and most of all, he stood with his beloved family.”
Lautenberg is survived by his wife, four children, two stepchildren, and 13 grandchildren, who spoke movingly at Wednesday’s service.
“I just wish the whole country could have heard all of you,” Biden said, speaking to the family. “You are the living definition of what it means to be a successful man.”
Lautenberg will be buried at Arlington Cemetery Friday morning.