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Frank Lautenberg a 'throwback' senator who never sought the spotlight (+video)

Frank Lautenberg, who died Monday, was always an outsider in the Senate, where his businessman's sensibilities led to impressive achievements but clashes with leadership.

Frank Lautenberg's legacy in politics
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Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who died Monday, was a longtime senator who never became a Senate insider, the last of the World War II veterans in the US Senate, and one of the very few lawmakers to ever return to the Senate after a retirement.

Despite never chairing a full committee, Senator Lautenberg built up a formidable legislative legacy, including legislation to ban smoking on most domestic  flights and to raise the legal drinking age to 21.

After 9/11, he relentlessly pushed for higher spending on homeland security and, especially, on the transportation and environmental issues concerning his home state of New Jersey.

He also took on powerful gun, tobacco, and alcohol lobbies over his nearly five terms in the Senate, including a dramatic return to the Senate floor in April to back President Obama’s gun control measures, while struggling with illness. (The measures failed.)

Yet his commitments were more to liberal values and causes than to party or party leaders. Despite serving nearly 28 years in the Senate, he never broke into Senate leadership circles, where what counted most was raising campaign funds and loyalty to a party line.

“He was a throwback to an earlier era,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in New Jersey. “Leaving the leadership to others and avoiding the spotlight, he seemed content, from what we know, to build a legacy based on his legislative achievements.”

“Today, senators all seem to scramble for leadership positions and to get some airtime on television," he adds. “He was like the old conservative Southern Democrats using their committee positions, quietly, to push for their causes in the 1950s and ’60s.”

Like many senators who come to the US Senate from a highly successful business career, Lautenberg found the clubby, slow-moving culture of the Senate to be somewhat of a shock. 

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