U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s nearly three decades in office and the causes he championed were remembered at a funeral service Wednesday morning at Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City.
The liberal Democrat from New Jersey died Monday after suffering complications from viral pneumonia. At 89, he was the oldest member of the Senate and the last of 115 World War II veterans to serve there.
The service began with family members standing to recite traditional Jewish funeral blessings before the packed synagogue. Among the guests were New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden.
Biden said he worked closely with Senator Lautenberg. “Frank was one of my closest friends in the Senate. We worked together just because of Delaware and New Jersey, that’s how it started.” Biden said the late senator knew how to get things done. “He always thought practically. What can I do to make it better? It wasn’t some great theological debate he had with himself. It was very simple, at least to Frank. There was a problem. He would fix it.”
Fellow Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez said Lautenberg never forget where he came from. “In his heart and in his lifetime, he was a man from New Jersey. A kid from Patterson.”
‘Growing up poor’
Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove gave opening remarks, detailing Lautenberg’s poor beginnings, to his time in World War II and his devout worship. Cosgrove recalled Lautenberg’s “pioneering stances for which the senator withstood withering criticism” when pushing legislation to raise the legal drinking age and later to ban smoking on commercial flights.
Lautenberg’s father owned a tavern. When he graduated from Nutley High School, he joined the army and served in Europe. Later he studied at Columbia University on the G.I. Bill.
Lautenberg’s children brought a decidedly light-hearted note to the proceedings.Daughter Ellen Lautenberg said during her remarks, “He loved his work in the senate so much. Even days ago, when he was feeling pretty good, he said ‘I never should have made that retirement speech.'”
For her eulogy, another Lautenberg daughter, Nan Mogart, read the lyrics to “Sunrise Sunset,” from the musical Fiddler on the Roof. She said her father sang the song every day.
Daughter Lisa “Lili” Birer, who had lost her voice, spoke with the help of her daughter Molly. “You can imagine, being surrounded by women, he had great respect for all of them. And minorities,” she said. “Except one minority, and that is the son-in-laws. They were worse than any special interest group.”Birer’s anecdotes continued to draw laughs as she listed her mementoes of her dad’s political career, including “200 pieces of ‘Lautenberg For Senate’ memorabilia in my closet” — and “3,000 pieces of his opponents’ memorabilia that I took down and buried in my back yard.”
Son Josh addressed Lautenberg’s staff directly. “I worry about you guys,” he said. “I worry about where you’re going to go next. He loved you because you had his back, and you know, he always had yours. Thank you for everything you’ve done, for making him the man his was and is.”
He joked about Lautenberg’s tendency toward backseat driving. “I think he went through more drivers than coffee.”
Josh too remembered his father’s tenacious spirit in the Senate. “He never backed down from a battle, especially when it was in the interest of the little guy,” he said.
“He would never be owned by lobbyists,” he continued. “He was so progressive for a man of 89 years old. He was so ‘today.”
A nation pays respects
A color guard ceremony was also scheduled for Wednesday afternoon at the Frank Lautenberg Rail Station in Secaucus, N.J., where his casket was to be put on an Amtrak train to Washington.
Lautenberg was an ardent defender of Amtrak and regional rail service, and he worked to secure hundreds of millions of dollars for mass transit projects.
“I am upset about losing my father,” said son Josh at the funeral, “but I’m just as upset for the people of Amtrak. He was their best friend.”
Lautenberg’s casket is set to arrive at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday and lie in repose in the Senate chamber, on the Lincoln Catafalque, a bier that was built for the coffin of Abraham Lincoln.Lautenberg, who served in the Army Signal Corps during World War II, will be buried Friday at Arlington National Cemetery.
A multimillionaire businessman, he was first elected to the Senate in 1982 and went on to serve nearly 30 years there in two stints.
He won his last race in 2008 at age 84, becoming the first New Jersey politician ever elected to five Senate terms. He had announced earlier this year he would not seek another term in 2014.