Feature

Frank Lautenberg 1924–2013

The New Jersey senator who retired only to run again

Frank Lautenberg was 58 years old and fabulously wealthy when he first ran for the U.S. Senate. Until then, his chief political activity had been bankrolling the campaigns of liberal politicians; his $90,000 donation in 1972 to George McGovern put him on President Richard Nixon’s enemy list. “If I’m willing to support them,” he said as he took up his own campaign in 1982, “why shouldn’t I support myself?” He won and went on to become a consistently liberal voice in the Senate for most of the next 30 years.

Lautenberg “learned to be scrappy in Paterson,” where he was born as the eldest son of poor Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, said the Bergen County, N.J., Record. He served in Europe with the Army Signal Corps, then graduated from Columbia University on the GI Bill. In the early 1950s, Lautenberg joined a tiny payroll-servicing company started by two brothers from Paterson. “There’s no end to what can be accomplished if you work like the devil,” Lautenberg later said, explaining how ADP grew into a $10 billion company, which he headed as CEO.

As a senator, Lautenberg “wrote the 1984 law that set the national drinking age at 21 and the 1989 legislation that banned smoking on domestic flights,” said USA Today. He retired in 2000 but ran again in 2002, taking up opposition to the Iraq War and calling Vice President Dick Cheney “the lead chicken hawk” among Republicans. “They talk tough on national defense and military issues and cast aspersions on others,” he said. “When it was their turn to serve, where were they?” Lautenberg was the last U.S. Senator to have served in World War II.

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