Dignitaries recall Lautenberg as a ‘tenacious’ and passionate man at his funeral

Holly Bailey

New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg was remembered during his funeral at a New York synagogue on Wednesday as a “most tenacious” man and “scrappy fighter” willing to do anything to better the lives of all Americans.

"You don't have to wait for the history books" to know the impact of Lautenberg's career, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said of the Democratic lawmaker, with whom she served in the Senate. She praised her former colleague as a tireless advocate of gun control and women's rights—and recalled sitting next to Lautenberg near the back of the Senate floor in seating reserved for lawmakers with less seniority.

"As Frank said, 'It’s not where you sit that counts, it’s where you stand,'" Clinton said. "And there was no doubt where he stood."

Clinton was one of more than 40 current and former lawmakers who turned out to honor Lautenberg at a service held at the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City. Among the others who attended were Vice President Joe Biden, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and dozens of members of the U.S. House and Senate—including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who served as honorary pallbearers.

Lautenberg died Monday at the age of 89 from complications of viral pneumonia. He was the oldest member of the Senate, where he served for nearly three decades. He was also the last World War II veteran serving in the Senate.

After months of serious health problems, Lautenberg announced in February that he would not seek a sixth term. But his children, in paying honor to their father Wednesday, told the crowd his love of serving in the Senate was so deep that he had regretted his decision as recently as 10 days ago.

“I think I will tell them that I take the whole thing back,” Lautenberg told his family, according to his son, Josh.

Lautenberg's service, which lasted several hours, included dozens of speakers praising the late senator—including his children and grandchildren, Clinton, Biden and New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez.

"I'm redundant," Biden said, referencing all the speakers who preceded him at the podium. "Nothing I can say can define the man he was more than what you have spoken."

Biden called Lautenberg one of his closest friends and praised him as a lawmaker who always thought "practically" about how to address the nation's problems. Lautenberg "never quit, never gave up on anything," Biden said, adding it was probably what made him so reluctant to leave the Senate.

"Frank had ... exceptional character. We saw that in how he lived his life and how he died, serving until the end," Biden added. "He worked and worked and worked. ... Everything he did, he did with passion. ... He didn't rest until he got it done. Even when his health was failing, he never gave up, he never gave in."

In his eulogy, Menendez praised Lautenberg as “one of the most tenacious men” he had ever met, willing to take on powerful interests like big tobacco and chemical companies to better the lives of Americans without fear of the political cost to his own career.

He also praised Lautenberg, who was a self-made millionaire, for never forgetting his roots and always looking out for those whom he had the “privilege” of serving in public life.

“His story was an American story, but in his life and his lifetime, he was a kid from New Jersey. ... He wanted to give back,” Menendez said. “I will remember his life as a testament to what is possible to achieve in America. And I take it as a challenge, as should all of us, to continue the many causes he championed."

At one point, Brian Stokes Mitchell, a veteran Broadway performer, sang what was said to be Lautenberg's favorite song: Frank Sinatra's version of "My Way."

Taking the stage after the song, Clinton laughed. "Frank would have loved that," she said. "I could see the casket vibrating."