The death of Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg leaves a gaping hole in the national body politic – not only because it will make it even more difficult for the Democratic-controlled upper legislative chamber to actually legislate, but also because he was one of the last true gentlemen in a deliberative body that once prided itself on being the world’s most exclusive gentleman’s club.
To be sure, Lautenberg, a Democrat, was fiercely partisan when partisanship was called for, but he also understood that the Senate was about helping to make the United States better tomorrow than it was yesterday, and that this required pragmatism, not parochialism; compromise, not confrontation.
There was a time when the Senate was filled with such people – Hubert H. Humphrey, Robert C. Byrd, and Arlen Specter come to mind, as do Margaret Chase Smith, Nancy Landon Kassebaum, and Olympia Snowe.
So divided is the Senate these days, so lacking is it in the spirit of compromise that so moved this nation forward in times past, that Lautenberg was forced out of his sickbed twice to provide the make-or-break vote – in March, on a gun control bill that nevertheless failed, and in May to be the decisive vote in committee to send a nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency to the Senate floor.
Almost from the moment he entered the Senate the first time at age 58, Lautenberg made a difference. The first Jew to win a statewide election in the Garden State, he joined the Senate shortly after his victory, because he was taking over a seat vacated by a disgraced Sen. Harrison Williams Jr.
In 1984, he saw his first effort at legislation pass, a law to encourage states to raise the legal drinking age to 21. Two years later, he pushed through one of the most important pieces of legislation of his career: a toxic material right-to-know law that requires companies to keep government and the public informed about the hazardous chemicals they use and what is done with them when they become waste. In 1996, he won another major victory in securing passage of a bill that banned convicted spousal abusers from owning or obtaining a gun.
Lautenberg was a patriotic American through and through, and he was the Senate’s last link to what has been called “the greatest generation,” the veterans of World War II. He also was a deeply committed Jew, proud of his heritage, proud of his people, and protective of the Jewish state.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, he won passage of the Lautenberg Amendment, a law that made it easier for Jews and other persecuted minorities, such as those fleeing Iran, to be granted refugee status, allowing them to live in the United States.
Before he got to the Senate, Lautenberg made his mark on the Jewish world, both as a philanthropist (he helped establish the Frank R. Lautenberg Center of Immunology at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, a major player in the war against cancer), and as an activist. Among other communal posts he held was the chairmanship of the national United Jewish Appeal. He served on several important organizational boards here and in Israel (he was a member of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s executive committee and served on the Hebrew University board of governors).
Locally, Lautenberg (who lived in recent years in Cliffside Park) made an effort to be present at every Super Sunday phonathon run by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. He was “always entertaining the volunteers and always making phone calls to supporters himself,” the JFNNJ wrote in a statement. “And he was successful getting people to say yes.”
“Civility is not a sign of weakness,” President John F. Kennedy said in his inaugural address in 1961. “Sincerity is always subject to proof.”
Frank R. Lautenberg was not a weak man. He proved his sincerity time and again. He rose from poverty to power. Others have, as well, but in his case, he never forgot where he came from, and he wielded his power to make the climb upward easier for others.
Yehi zichro baruch – may his memory be for a blessing. And may that memory inspire us all to create the better world for which he labored for so long.