'The Greatest Generation' has left the building


These last few years -- even before he got really sick and missed a lot of action on the Senate floor -- there were stretches where you'd forget about octogenarian New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg, where you might ask yourself if he was still unretired or had re-retired or what.

Then one day last August, I picked up the paper and here he was in Philadelphia's western suburbs -- standing outside a helicopter museum, and in the face of a throng of Tea Partiers there paying homage to the smarmy young whippersnapper GOP vice presidential wannabe Paul Ryan. He was 88 and less than a year from death, but Lautenberg -- there as a surrogate for President Obama and the Democrats -- stood in the unforgiving August sun, with people shouting "Communist!" in his face, and gave as good as he got.

"I'm one of the people who will get richer" -- if taxes were cut for the well-off, as Ryan and Lautenberg's fellow millionaire Mitt Romney had proposed -- "and I don't want that goddamn money. I want it to go to my country."

"Get the facts!" a conservative wielding a large camera and snapping pictures shouted at Lautenberg.

"You get the facts, my friend," Lautenberg snapped back.

You see, that is the thing about Frank Lautenberg -- the three-decade senator who succumbed to pneumonia earlier today at age 89. Maybe you had to go out and get the facts -- but he didn't. He had lived him.

Lautenberg's passing brings America to a place that was inevitable -- but not desirable. He was the last of a remarkable 115 U.S. senators to fight in World War II.That fact will surely be mentioned in all the obituaries -- but here's something else that's just important. He was also the Senate's last child of the Great Depression, raised in a world of crushing poverty, old enough to see the comeback that began with the New Deal and then to take full advantage of a salvaged economy.

War, deprivation -- and most important, renewal -- made Lautenberg the man he was.

A liberal.

A child of poor immigrants from Poland and Russia, Lautenberg was just 5 when the stock market crashed in 1929, and his father Samuel bounced from job to job -- kept on his feet, his son told an interviewer years later, for a time by the Works Progress Administration of infrastructure jobs that was created by President Franklin Roosevelt at the low point of the Great Depression.

Still, the father died young and the 18-year-old Frank Lautenberg was running the family sandwich shop in North Jersey when World War II led him to enlist in the Army Signal Corps for four years and serve on the front lines in Europe. "It was an assimilation of different cultures, environments: country boys, city boys, tough guys, not-so-tough guys; but we all got along and we had to fend for one another," he told the Library of Congress.

After he returned home in 1946, this son of poverty enrolled on the Ivy League campus of New York's Columbia University -- paid for by the federal government under the G.I. Bill of Rights, the innovative program that propelled millions of veterans into the middle class in an age of newfound prosperity for many Americans. For Lautenberg, that leg up afforded by the G.I. Bill launched him into a much higher orbit, to create the payroll processing firm ADP and to become a millionaire.

It would have been so easy for Lautenberg to forget how he got there. Instead, he went to Washington and spent the last third of his life in public service. Although he won a lot of victories -- things like banning smoking on planes and keeping spouse-abusers from getting guns -- it is some of the lost causes ("the only ones worth fighting for") that stand out most.

When another collapse on Wall Street in 2008 left millions out of work, he tried unsuccessfully to convince his colleagues to create another WPA like the one that had hired his dad. In drastically failing health, he came to the Senate floor in a wheelchair in April to cast what would be his next-to-last vote, in favor of enhanced weapons checks for gun purchasers.

The last World War II vet in the Senate was a powerful voice against feckless military intervention -- he opposed the 1991 Gulf War and spared no mercy in labeling backers of the Iraq War like military-service avoidee Dick Cheney "chickenhawks." When Lautenberg joined the Senate in 1983, 76 of the 100 senators were military veterans, now the number is just 16, the lowest in modern memory.

They've called Lautenberg and his contemporaries "The Greatest Generation" -- not because they were born any different than the rest of us, but because they lived through an era of hardships of the kind that more fortunate Baby Boomers (yes, like me) or Millenials can't easily comprehend -- and because so many of them gained wisdom and gumption in order to survive.

Now, Washington is in the hands of too many trust-fund babies born on third base with no idea who sacrificed them into scoring position, too many technocrats who never held a draft card with their fingers on the video-game joystick of a Predator drone armed with Hellfire missiles.

In the coming days, someone will be named to sit in Lautenberg's chair. But never again will there be a senator who has eyeballed the same things -- and learned the same lessons -- as Lautenberg, or his generational colleagues like the recently deceased Daniel Inouye or the retired Bob Dole. And that is a fact, my friend.