Only a handful of senators--perhaps most notably Strom Thurmond--have served in the U.S. Senate while in their nineties. Within seven years, their ranks could expand by three. The trio of aspiring nonagenarian senators nipping at Thurmond's heels includes Robert Byrd (who turns 90 on Tuesday) and Ted Stevens (who has announced plans to run for re-election next year, when he will be 84)--two men who have taken turns serving as Senate president pro tempore, chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, and unofficial symbol of the geriatric Senate establishment. It also includes Senator Frank Lautenberg, Democrat of New Jersey.
That Lautenberg is poised to join two Washington institutions like Byrd and Stevens in becoming one of the oldest senators in American history is improbable for a number of reasons. He retired from the Senate rather than defend his seat in 2000, and returned only when his longtime political nemesis, the ethically troubled Robert Torricelli, was forced to abandon his re-election bid 36 days before the 2002 election. He has never served as chairman of a committee--and, having lost his seniority after retiring, isn't likely to soon. He is not particularly beloved in the world of politics--apparently not even by New Jersey voters, who consistently give him sub-par approval ratings.
It seems perfectly fitting, then, that Lautenberg looks set to etch his name into the Senate's history books cloaked in relative anonymity. He's long been overshadowed by colleagues who are either gracefully cerebral (Bill Bradley) or ostentatiously corrupt (Torricelli). And, perhaps more than any other senator, he's thrived on obscurity, tirelessly seeking to solve problems that aren't on other people's radar screens--or that, in some cases, may not need solving at all. In fact, the key to understanding Lautenberg's reluctance to leave the Senate may lie in his political beliefs: this is a man who, personally and philosophically, simply loves government. Maybe a little too much.
Lautenberg's announcement last May that he would be a candidate for re-election in 2008, at the age of 84, came as a surprise to those who assumed his 2002 re-emergence was simply meant to keep the seat warm for another Democrat to take over in 2008, if not sooner. The reality was much different. He came to regret his decision to retire almost immediately upon announcing it in February 1999. "He told me he was thinking about trying to come back within a few months of saying he was going to leave," says Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), a close friend. Lautenberg--whose prowess as a fundraiser for George McGovern landed him on Richard Nixon's enemies list--retired in large part because he didn't want to spend time raising the money necessary to fend off an anticipated challenge from either Christine Todd Whitman or Tom Kean, two popular former Republican governors. (Neither one ended up running.)
In 2002, after it became clear that Torricelli would have to be replaced on the ballot, state party leaders began to search for a replacement. Lautenberg was not their first choice: they approached a handful of other politicians, including Pallone, all of whom declined to enter the race on such late notice. Lautenberg, on the other hand, bored by retirement, was champing at the bit to run, and was willing to spend some of his own money to boot.
When Lautenberg ultimately prevailed over Republican opponent Doug Forrester, he became the first person ever to return to the Senate after retiring. There was no small irony in his replacing Torricelli, given their very heated and very public feud (in 1999 Torricelli famously threatened to castrate Lautenberg). "I was happy to come back, and I was happy to see him go," Lautenberg admitted to me with a wry grin.
Of course, schadenfreude on its own is hardly reason enough spurn retirement and return to public life. Lautenberg says he was motivated to run in 2002, in part, both by 9/11 and by the Bush administration's indifference toward the economic struggles of ordinary Americans. And, indeed, Lautenberg has emerged as one of the most strident critics of the administration in the Senate, calling Dick Cheney a "chicken hawk" on the Senate floor in 2004 and sponsoring an amendment that sought to rename a 2005 Republican budget bill the "Moral Disaster of Monumental Proportion Reconciliation Act." But visibility is not the same thing as influence. Lautenberg may have returned to the Senate to shape the debate over national security and health care, but, lacking a seat on the relevant committees, he's not really in a position to do so. So just as he always has, Lautenberg has focused on more minor issues, particularly--as befits a bedroom-state senator--transportation.
Ask Kate Hanni. Last December she spent eight miserable hours in a grounded plane on a runway in Austin. Now she's the head of a group pushing for a "bill of rights" for passengers that would impose strict new regulations on airlines. Most senators politely told her they weren't interested. Lautenberg, however, made it a top legislative priority. "He's kind of our hero," Hanni says. Or ask Bob Monetti, whose son Rick was killed aboard Pan Am Flight 103. Monetti first met with Lautenberg in 1990 to request his help in bringing the bombing suspects to trial. Libyan intelligence officer Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi was convicted by a Scottish court in 2001, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Lautenberg, who by then had retired. Monetti and his wife were in Washington giving an interview in reaction to the verdict. "We walk out of the TV studio and start walking toward our next interview," he recalls. "Lautenberg is driving by in his car, spots us, flags us down, and drives us to where we're going. He's probably the only person on Capitol Hill who would do that."
At first this seems difficult to square with Lautenberg's reputation for having an irritable personality. ("He's like your crabby old grandfather," says Dave Rebovich, a political scientist at Rider University.) But those who know him well suggest that there's no mystery at all. "He's intense, focused, and extraordinarily competitive. That can rub some people the wrong way, but it's the flip side of how much he cares and how hard he's willing to fight. You can't have one side of Frank without the other," says New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine.
Both sides are on display the afternoon I visit Lautenberg in his comfortable Hart office. Just as we sit down to talk, Lautenberg has to hurry to the Senate floor for an unexpected vote. Hustling downstairs to the subway that runs to the Capitol, he complains about the Alexander Calder statue in the Hart lobby ("That thing has got to go") and the sub-optimal design of the subway station ("I had to have a mirror put in here so I could see from down the hall whether to run and catch the train"). This time, after a sprint, we just miss the train; Lautenberg (fairly) chides me and a staffer for slowing him down.
His swiftness aside, the question remains: Is he too old to be running for re-election? A July poll found that 54 percent of New Jerseyans (including 48 percent of Democrats) think so. Past precedent isn't encouraging either; Byrd, like Thurmond before him, has had to hand off major duties off to staff members. But on Capitol Hill, Lautenberg's age is viewed more as a source of amusement than a handicap. As we file into the elevator to the Senate chamber, Lautenberg cheerfully greets Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.). "Frank, some people were asking me the other day how old you were," drawls Shelby. "I said, 61. No way you’re 80-whatever." Nor does Lautenberg seem at all behind the times. Says his Garden State colleague Sen. Bob Menendez: "He called me over one day. He was really excited and said, ‘Look what I just got.’ He was just like a little kid. And he pulls out his new iPhone. I think he was the first senator to get one."
New Jersey Republicans hoping to unseat Lautenberg next year will have to do better than simply playing the age card. Instead, they might try pointing out that Lautenberg, who attended Columbia on the G.I. Bill and has embraced the Greatest Generation ethos of collective action ever since, is just about the most enthusiastic government-knows-best liberal you'll find in Congress. Ask him about the biggest legislative achievements of his career, and you'll find most of them have one trait in common: they use federal law to increase public safety at the cost of personal liberty.
Lautenberg authored the law that raised the drinking age to 21. I ask him whether he ever worries if that law took away an important privilege from millions of American adults who are old enough to die in battle for their country (and who are also confronted by a previously nonexistent culture of underground, unsafe drinking on college campuses). He rejects my suggestion with a wave of his hand. "Because of that law, there are 28,000 people alive today who'd be dead otherwise. That outweighs everything else." He also evinces a remarkable confidence in the ability of government in general--and of his legislation in particular--to alter not just the laws governing the behavior of Americans, but the mores underlying that behavior. Case in point: the 1987 law he wrote banning smoking on airplanes. As he discusses it, his voice rises and he grips the armrests of his chair. "That law changed our entire culture," he says. "It means you see a lot fewer people smoking outside sidewalk cafes, in public squares. It changed people's whole attitude toward smoking."
Not many people harbor nostalgia for the days of smoke-filled airplanes, but Lautenberg's claiming credit for such a wholesale cultural shift is both highly questionable and illustrative of a certain strain of thought in his worldview. It's hardly surprising that a man who ascribes such potency to the dictates of Congress is not shy about using federal legislation to combat all manner of societal ills. A high-profile spate of carjackings? Write a law to make it a federal crime, even if, as critics grumbled at the time, it had always been a state matter that was hardly crying out for Uncle Sam's intervention. Rail travel in New Jersey is too inconvenient? Secure funding for a gleaming new $450 million transfer station in Secaucus, which bears your name.
This approach to governing might make sense if the federal government could be as diligent and attentive to detail as, well, Frank Lautenberg is. But sometimes it can't be. The Lautenberg Rail Station in Secaucus may have looked good on paper, for instance, but it's not clear the public demand for it merited the half-billion-dollar price tag. "I think the station is a poignant monument to him," says Rutgers University political scientist Ross Baker. "It's a gorgeous facility and it makes perfect sense in theory, but it's terribly ill-used. I drive past Exit 15X on the turnpike all the time, and there's never anyone there."
Then again, being an overzealous legislator does not typically presage electoral defeat for a well-known incumbent, even one, like Lautenberg, about whom voters are ambivalent. As of last November, according to SurveyUSA, he was the fourth least popular U.S. senator, with an approval rating of only 39 percent. (Tellingly, of the five least popular senators, the other four were all defeated that month). Lautenberg, though, is still an overwhelming favorite to win re-election. For one thing, his low approval rating is a bit misleading: New Jersey voters are notoriously cranky about their politicians, but usually end up holding their noses and voting for Democrats. They haven’t elected a Republican to the Senate since 1972.
He also boasts an ethically spotless record in a state not known for a culture of clean politics. The New Jersey Republican Party's website lists more than thirty press releases blasting Corzine and a dozen targeting Menendez (plus a few directed at Hillary Clinton), but there's nary a single mention of Lautenberg. And no big-name Republicans in the state have stepped forward to challenge him, in large part because acquiring statewide name recognition in New Jersey requires loads of cash, which is not likely to be forthcoming. As Rebovich, the political scientist from Rider, puts it, "Jersey Republicans are very wealthy, but they're also very cheap. Unless they think you're going to win, they're not going to donate to you."
And so, while Byrd cranks out appropriations bills and Stevens racks up legal fees, Lautenberg soldiers on, the commanding general in Congress's war against the mundane troubles of modern life.
Correction: The subheadline for this article initially referred to Senator Lautenberg as 84. In fact, he doesn't turn 84 until January. It also originally misstated the number of senators who had served while in their nineties. Both errors have been corrected.
Josh Patashnik is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.