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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 131

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This is the grave of Frank Lautenberg.

Born in 1924 in Paterson, New Jersey to Jewish immigrants, Lautenberg served in the Army Signal Corps during World War II. When he returned home, he used the GI Bill to attend Columbia, where he graduated with a degree in Economics. He spent the next few decades in business, mostly the payroll processing firm Automatic Data Processing. He started when that company began and became its CEO in 1975.

In middle age, Lautenberg increased his involvement in politics. He was a Democratic fundraiser of some importance by the early 1970s, including being a major funder of the McGovern campaign in 1972. He became executive commissioner of the New York and New Jersey Port Authority in 1978 and served in that position for four years. In 1982, he decided to run for Senate from New Jersey to replace Harrison Williams, who was implicated in Abscam. He basically self-funded himself into the position, defeating a number of other candidates in the primary in this way, despite having no electoral experience. He then defeated the Republican candidate Millicent Fenwick in a pretty dirty race, where Lautenberg used ageism against the 72 year old Fenwick, one of a dying breed of genuinely liberal Republicans. His reelection campaign in 1988 was pretty nasty too. Run by the rising political consultant James Carville, Lautenberg came back from an early deficit to his challenger, the 1958 Heisman Trophy winner Pete Dawkins, by calling him a carpetbagger who was using the position to run for president. In fact, most of Lautenberg’s elections were fairly nasty and close. He managed a close win in 1994, defeating Chuck Haytaian 50-47. Lautenberg retired in 2000 when his hated Democratic colleague Bob Torricelli encouraged Christine Todd Whitman to run against him. He almost immediately regretted not running. Then when Torricelli got busted for corruption and didn’t run for reelection, Lautenberg saw his chance to return. New Jersey Democrats weren’t that thrilled. First, they asked Bill Bradley to run. They would have rather had Robert Menendez or Frank Pallone, but both were in their own reelection campaigns for the House. So Lautenberg it was. He won that fall and again in 2008.

All of this focus on Lautenberg’s races instead of his policies are for good reason–he really wasn’t all that exciting. He was a consistent liberal voice in the Senate. And that’s great! But he was more of a trooper than a leader. Don’t get me wrong–we aren’t talking about Herb Kohl levels of irrelevance. But most of his issues were about airline safety and consumer safety which while important enough, don’t get many headlines. His biggest accomplishment was his leadership for the bill banning smoking on airplanes. I didn’t fly until 1994, so I never experienced life on a smoky airplane, but it sounds dreadful. So I think we can all thank Lautenberg for that one. Earlier in his career, he was the lead senator is pushing for the national legal drinking age of 21, which I think has an ambivalent legacy, and the later bill for a national 0.08% blood alcohol limit for drunk driving charges, which is a very positive law. Here is an interview with Lautenberg from 1984 on the drinking age bill.

He also introduced the Ryan White Care Act, which mandated federal funding for AIDS patients as a payer of last resort, when patients have no other way to pay for their treatment. He was also very good on gun control legislation, not that meaningful restrictions on Americans’ freedom to kill each other has ever had much momentum. He also gave this speech ripping “chickenhawks” for attacking John Kerry’s record in Vietnam during the 2004 election.

When Lautenberg died in 2013, at the age of 89, he was oldest person in the Senate and the last World War II veteran to serve there. I can’t say that I’m a fan of rich guys buying their way into the Senate, but of those who have done that, most have been a lot worse than Lautenberg.

Frank Lautenberg is buried on the confiscated lands of the traitor Lee, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia. He is buried right next to Robert McNamara and I like to think Lautenberg’s role in the afterlife is making sure the specter of that bastard stays far away from Earth.

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