The last U.S. senator of the Greatest Generation and the oldest member of the U.S. Congress died earlier today after a long illness. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) was 89.
He was something of an anomaly in the Senate, a wealthy and highly successful businessman who was an outspoken pro-government liberal.
Lautenberg, the last remaining World War II veteran in the Senate, was a self-made millionaire. He had been a prominent philanthropist and activist in Jewish community and Israeli causes, but he didn’t want to be tagged in Washington as just another Jewish senator or, as he once told an aide, the senator from Israel.
That and another factor may have influenced his subsequent strong focus on domestic issues. Lautenberg also was miffed that he didn’t get the Jewish support he expected and felt he deserved in his first election, in 1982, when he ran against Republican Congresswoman Millicent Fenwick. She was very popular in the Jewish community and had been a prominent figure in anti-terrorism and pro-Israel legislation during her House tenure.
He soon got over any insensitivity and when he ran for reelection in 1988 he was sending fund raising appeals with yarmulkes enclosed to remind potential contributors of his support for legislation to allow members of the armed services to wear yarmulkes on duty.
Lautenberg served twice in the Senate, first from 1982 to 2001, and after a brief retirement from 2003 until this week. The ethical scandals surrounding two Democratic predecessors helped pave the way to his election each time. First, Sen. Harrison “Pete” Williams resigned after being caught in the Abscam bribery case and later when Sen. Bob Torricelli dropped out of the 2002 race in the face of federal corruption charges.
One of most liberal members of the Senate, he focused on transportation issues — airline safety, carjacking and auto theft, and funding for public transportation. But he was also a prominent advocate for abortion rights, same sex marriage, banning smoking on aircraft and federal buildings, environmental protection, raising the drinking age to 21 and gun control. His last Senate vote was in April when he was brought to the floor in a wheel chair to vote for gun safety legislation.
He had been the national chair of the United Jewish Appeal, now the Jewish Federations of North America, and served on the boards of the American Jewish Committee, the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv and Hebrew University, where the Lautenberg Center for Immunology and Cancer Research bears his name.
Just last month was recognized by Hillel with its Renaissance Award for his lifetime of leadership and service to the Jewish community, and honored with the creation of the Lautenberg Prize for those working to strengthen Jewish identity within the Russian-speaking Jewish community.
Lautenberg was “an early victim of the ‘militant’ Jewish right’s strong-arm tactics against those who did not faithfully toe the Likud line, reports Chemi Shalev, in Haaretz.
The Israeli Consulate General in New York called him a “tremendous friend of Israel and the Jewish people.”