The U.S. Senate will not see the likes of Frank Lautenberg ever again.
There are some who will see that as a good thing, since Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, was an avowed liberal of the New Deal stripe. But no one should suffer any illusions that there will be no more liberals in the Senate.
Lautenberg, who died Monday, is, however, the last in a line of a fraternity of 115 men who were both U.S. senators over the last seven decades and veterans of World War II.
At the age of 89, Lautenberg was a member of what newsman Tom Brokaw dubbed the Greatest Generation. They were men and women whose youth was forged in the deprivation of the Great Depression and then went on to build one of the greatest war machines in history, assuring victory for the Allies in World War II.
Like so many others who emerged from those two life-changing events, Lautenberg, born to modest means, used his GI benefits to attend and graduate from college, in his case Columbia. And while millions like him went on to enjoy the success that a newly prosperous United States provided, Lautenberg excelled, becoming a multimillionaire, before entering politics.
The Department of Veterans Affairs estimated in 2011 that 670 American World War II veterans were dying every day. The median age for the 1.3 million surviving veterans is 92, a little older than Lautenberg was.
And while all 115 of those men had much in common, they weren’t all Roosevelt Democrats like Lautenberg; they came from all stripes of both parties.
Take former Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, for example. He was a Republican — a staunchly conservative Republican, at least by the standards of his day. Dole was severely wounded by machine gun fire in Europe and returned home to three years of recuperation. But he, too, took advantage of his GI benefits, and graduated with a law degree from Washburn Municipal College in Topeka. He entered politics early and spent more than 35 years in Congress before giving up his seat in the Senate to pursue his unsuccessful bid for president as the Republican nominee in 1996.
These men who lived through the Depression and served through the World War brought something special to the legislative chamber that they shared. They were able to empathize — as Lautenberg did when he talked about the struggles his widowed mother faced and as Dole did in championing the rights of the disabled. The rich and varied lives they led informed them as legislators. The lessons they learned about working together at a young age allowed them — no, required them — to reach across the aisle and work toward a common good on a regular basis. They had confronted real enemies and to see the man or woman sitting across the aisle as an enemy would trivialize the word.
On this date we mark the 69th anniversary of one of the most spectacular and heart-wrenching examples of men working together — the D-Day landing on the coast of Normandy. And on this day the nation’s loss of the last Senate leader to emerge from that war carries a special poignancy. Those 115 veterans brought something special to the Senate, just as their 12 million brothers and sisters in arms brought something special to the nation. Lautenberg’s death is not only a reminder of what we are losing, day by day, but also of how lucky this nation was to have had the Greatest Generation when it did.