It didn’t take long for the talk about the death of Senator Frank Lautenberg, the country’s oldest and New Jersey’s longest-serving Senate member, to quickly devolve from tribute into political intrigue. Such is the newscycle when Chris Christie, Cory Booker, and premature giddiness about 2016 are involved.
Something about the swiftly changing topic of conversations befits the end of the specific era that Lautenberg help preside over. Last December, we remarked after the death of the Senator Daniel Inouye–who had served Hawaii since it was admitted into the United States–that Lautenberg was the last man standing from the ranks of the country’s World War II veterans. But Lautenberg wasn’t just the last of his kind, he was also seemingly the last part of the watershed in American politics where one downplayed his or her identity.
Stephen M. Greenberg, an attorney who worked with Lautenberg at ADP and a longtime friend, said that political advisers told Lautenberg that putting too much emphasis on his Jewishness could run the risk of provoking anti-Semitism.
“In terms of being a successful politician, the fact that he was the national chairman of UJA or that he had been involved in founding a cancer research center in Jerusalem…they weren’t helpful,” Greenberg said. Instead, Greenberg said, it was Lautenberg’s success building ADP that was touted during the campaign.
It’s true Lautenberg’s legacy in business was impressive. Many tributes discuss Lautenberg’s long service in the Senate, but overlook the fact that he spent more time (some 30 years) and made his fortune (thought to be as much as $116 million) at ADP, a company which pays one-in-six American workers.
The company was founded in 1949 as Automatic Payrolls, Inc. by brothers Henry and Joseph Taub, who worked, according to a 2011 New York Times obituary of Henry Taub, first in an office above a Paterson, N.J., ice cream parlor, then in a hotel basement. Lautenberg, the son of what the Times describes as Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia joined as the fifth employee and recalled “lots of seven-day workweeks, lots of 12-hour days.” The Times obituary of Taub describes him as cleaning his own office at night and delivering payrolls by bus.
Lautenberg used his success in business as a cudgel to bludgeon opponents as his candidacy represented the “rags-to-riches” narrative that captivated America in the post-war years and defeated members of the old money stock.
He was also a consistent liberal, the old-fashioned kind: against smoking and the Iraq war, for health-care reform, even for Amtrak. He won by beating Millicent Fenwick, a moderate Republican woman (a type that is itself going out of fashion), suggesting that, at the age of seventy-two, she might not be up to the job and was “a little eccentric.” (She was, after all, a divorced woman in politics.) His death, by virtue of its timing and the political configuration of New Jersey, will be the occasion for more reflections on what half a dozen political labels mean. Under state law, Governor Chris Christie, who is a Republican with an interest, for the Presidential race in 2016, in letting Democrats think he’s a moderate while assuring members of his own party that he’s conservative enough, gets to pick an interim successor.
In other antiquated terms, he was the last of the New Deal Liberals.
Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.