Despite his advanced age and a bout with cancer, one could be caught off guard by the death of U.S. Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg. The man who brawled his way from Paterson to Washington didn't win them all, but it was hard to imagine him not showing up for the next scrap.
The Senate's last World War II veteran, Lautenberg was in many ways known for what he fought, whether it was the Axis, the tobacco industry, or Dick Cheney. So it's fitting that it was one of his most prominent foes, Gov. Chris Christie, who offered the pithiest assessment of the senator after his passing Monday. "Senator Lautenberg fought for the things he believed in," Christie told reporters, "and sometimes he just fought because he liked to."
What Lautenberg lacked in likability he made up for in doggedness. A self-made multimillionaire who joined payroll giant Automatic Data Processing when it was a start-up, Lautenberg remained animated by the obstacles he faced, and the breaks he got, as a son of working-class Jews who immigrated from Eastern Europe -- from the poor conditions his father worked under in Paterson's mills to the G.I. Bill that allowed Lautenberg to go to Columbia instead.
The senator fought for an expanded G.I. Bill in 2008, in keeping with a consistent vision of the federal government as helper and protector. He pushed legislation that banned smoking on airliners and in federal buildings, forced states to raise the drinking age and lower the drunken-driving threshold, eased immigration for persecuted groups, restricted gun ownership, and boosted public transit.
Lautenberg also fought unapologetically to bring home the bacon, once boasting of his ranking in a yearly report known as the "Pig Book" (meant, of course, as a criticism). He has a memorial to prove it: the Frank R. Lautenberg Rail Station, a billion-dollar North Jersey transit temple originally built with lots of marble but no parking or access from the nearby turnpike.
Lautenberg wasn't influenced by the growing distaste for pork projects -- or, indeed, by much else. By means and inclination, he was remarkably independent of the bosses who control much of New Jersey politics. Ironically, just two years after he retired from the Senate in 2000, Democratic power brokers had to turn to Lautenberg to run in place of the incumbent, Robert Torricelli, whose candidacy had imploded in an ethics scandal.
After his return from retirement, the octogenarian senator seemed immovable even as a legion of ambitious fellow Democrats clamored to dislodge him. When Camden County's Rep. Rob Andrews finally threw decorum to the wind and challenged Lautenberg in a primary, the old codger crushed him. It was only the last of several campaigns that Lautenberg prosecuted with the pugilistic zeal Christie alluded to.
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