This morning, I was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of one of our own and one of the closest members of my old Senate family: Frank Lautenberg. I was privileged to spend more than 20 years as Frank’s colleague in the Senate—off and on repeatedly, because fate didn’t allow Frank to stick with his original retirement and he was called back to serve New Jersey again. He was an American original, and as decent a person as I’ve ever known in public life.
Frank was a remarkable legislator and a tremendous human being. He was someone who fought hard and won a lot of battles that today people take for granted: like a ban on smoking on airplanes; or progress for veterans; and laws that have helped allow Jews and Christians and Baha’is and so many others escape persecution; laws banning foreign aid to state sponsors of terrorism; laws bolstering security of ports and chemical plants; and laws ensuring that the victims of terror achieve some sense of justice.
Frank was tenacious as a legislator. He never forgot where he came from in New Jersey, never forgot the values that he grew up with, and he always practiced them. Frank was above all a person of huge personal conviction. Teresa and I traveled together with him in 1990 to the first climate change conference in Rio, and Frank never lost faith with that commitment to the environment. During the years when Frank was going through chemotherapy and he was weakened by cancer, he was still down there on the floor of the United States Senate fighting on every environmental debate late into the night. One day I realized where so much of that conviction came from, because Frank told me about his grandchild whose asthma was exacerbated by pollution. For some, all politics is local, but for Frank, all politics was personal, and I loved that about him.
Also personal was Frank’s conviction about those who have worn the uniform of our country. He never lost the connection to the 18-year-old Frank Lautenberg who volunteered for service in World War II. And I think he fought harder for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan because he had been there standing in their shoes. He fought just as hard for me as well, and I will always be grateful and touched by the ferocity with which Frank defended me many years ago when partisans questioned my own service in the Navy.
Frank Lautenberg was as loyal as he was patriotic. So I will particularly miss the last World War II veteran who served in the United States Senate. My heart goes out to Bonnie, his children Ellen, Nan, Lisa, and to Joshua, and to the grandchildren that he loved so much.