Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, a World War II veteran who served five terms in the Senate, died Monday, leaving one of New Jersey’s Senate seats empty and marking the first time in roughly 70 years that the chamber will be without a someone who saw service in that war.
Mr. Lautenberg, an 89-year-old Democrat who helped anchor the Senate’s liberal wing, made his mark in office by sponsoring legislation that ended smoking sections on airplanes and by pushing for stricter gun controls.
But he was also the last of 115 senators known to have served in World War II — a group that helped steer America into its position as a world superpower, and to expand the social contract to include a robust welfare state at home.
“The World War II vets witnessed great changes in history from an expanded role for the federal government and the rise of civil rights and women’s rights movements,” said Darrell West of the Brookings Institute. “They were more likely to see the federal government as a positive contributor to the country than those who came afterwards.”
Mr. Lautenberg’s death means New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will pick his successor, putting a major decision in the hands of the Republican governor. If he appoints a Republican to the seat it will cut into Democrats’ majority, splitting the chamber with 52 Democrats, 46 Republicans and two independents who side with Democrats.
Mr. Christie did not broach the subject at a news conference Monday, where he offered his “deepest condolences” to the Lautenberg family as well as the late senator’s staff and friends.
“I think the best way to describe Frank Lautenberg in the way he would probably want to be described to all of you today is as a fighter,” Mr. Christie said. “Sen. Lautenberg fought for the things he believed in, and sometimes he just fought because he liked to.”
First elected to the Senate in 1982, Mr. Lautenberg retired after three terms in 1998, only to return two years later when Democrats wanted a candidate to replace disgraced Sen. Robert Torricelli on the ballot just weeks before the election.
Mr. Lautenberg built a reputation on Capitol Hill as a liberal icon while playing a leading role in writing the nation’s drunken-driving laws — including the .08 blood alcohol standard and the 21-year-old drinking age limit.
He also co-authored the post-Sept. 11 GI bill, which passed Congress in 2008.
Mr. Lautenberg had been ailing and missed most of the chamber’s votes this year, and he already had announced he would not seek re-election next year. But fellow senators said he was on call to show up for tough votes, and he cast his final votes in April in support of new gun controls.
He served in the Army Signal Corps from 1942 to 1946. He used the GI Bill to attend business school at Columbia University and went on to earn millions at chairman and CEO of Automatic Data Processing Inc.
Gordon H. “Nick” Mueller, president and CEO of the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, said those who returned home to serve in Congress “were leaders of a different breed.”
“They went through the most cataclysmic and horrific war in all human history and it changes your life and I think it changed their notion of public service,” Mr. Mueller said. “They understood how close we came to losing both our way of life, our freedom and our democracy.”
Mr. Lautenberg’s death comes months after the passing of Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, a former Army captain who lost his right arm in the World War II and in 2000 was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism.
Two House members, Reps. John D. Dingell of Michigan and Ralph M. Hall of Texas, are now the last remaining members of Congress to have served World War II.
Less than one-quarter of the Senate now has any military experience, a dramatic departure from 1977 when the number of veterans serving in the Senate reached an all-time high: 81.
The Senate historian’s office said the first World War II vet was elected to the upper chamber in the 1940s and the list includes some of the most memorable political figures in the history of the United States, including Barry Goldwater, Joseph McCarthy and Richard M. Nixon.
“The World War II era in American politics ended long ago, when the votes of veterans of the war slipped below the threshold of notice by lawmakers and candidates,” said H.W. Brands, a history professor at the University of Texas.
“But the presence of men like Frank Lautenberg occasionally concentrated minds in the Senate on the seriousness of what they had been sent to Washington to do. And it reminded people caught up in the troubles of the present that America has overcome challenges far greater than any we face today,” he said.