“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.
The son of Polish and Russian immigrants, Lautenberg as a teenager worked nights to help support his family after his father’s death. After World War II, he studied economics at Columbia University and later helped launch Automatic Data Processing, now one of the world’s largest data-processing companies.
In 1982, with the help of the team that would later launch Bill Clinton’s first presidential run, Lautenberg spent $4 million of his own money and upset Rep. Millicent Fenwick (R) of New Jersey, a popular icon then viewed as a shoo-in for the US Senate seat held by Democratic Sen. Harrison Williams, who was convicted in a federal corruption probe. A scorching ad campaign suggested that Ms. Fenwick, at 72, was too old for the race and unfit to serve.
“Many saw it as ungallant for Lautenberg to have challenged this woman who was immortalized in Doonesbury,” says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “But he realized that, because she had become a kind of folk heroine, he would need to take off the gloves. It was a very hard-hitting campaign, and the age issue did influence a lot of voters.”
But that first campaign left a cloud that followed Lautenberg right up until his last race, when his primary opponent, US Rep. Robert Andrews (D), ran ads suggesting that Lautenberg, at 84, was also too old for the job. The voters did not agree, and Lautenberg won that primary race, 59 to 35 percent.
Still, Lautenberg never became a senator’s senator, never learned when to stay silent or how to give colleagues the political cover seen as essential to maintaining a majority control of the Senate. He didn’t go out of his way to charm the press corps or rush the television cameras.