Shortly after going to work for Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J., in 1987, I and a legislative assistant were in his office discussing media strategy for a news conference the next day. An idea popped into my head so I started thinking out loud about tweaking the strategy. Lautenberg got this deflated look on his face and said, “You’re wasting my time. Get out of my office. Come back when you have a plan.” When we got outside, the aide just smiled and said, “Sen. Lautenberg is very bottom line.” Lesson learned.
Lautenberg believed in short meetings, short memos and a packed schedule that kept him busy nearly every minute of the day. He hated the idea of not having something to do. He wanted the staff to have a plan to make an impact on nearly every bill that came through the committees he served on.
Early in his career, his impatience was attributed to the fact that he was 57 years old before he ran and won elective office. Supposedly, this made him in a hurry to get things done. I don’t buy it. I’ll bet he was in a hurry when he served in WWII or when he helped build a business from scratch. I was even told that when he skied (he was an avid skier for 50 years), he liked to race down the mountain.
Always underestimated, Lautenberg was expected to be outshined during his election battles, first by iconic Congresswoman Millicent Fenwick, next by the former Heisman Trophy winner/Rhodes Scholar Peter Dawkins. The Frank Lautenberg model — work hard, get things done, do what you have to do to win — buried both of these stars, plus three more opponents in later years. During the 1988 campaign I worked on, Lautenberg promoted the idea that he was “a workhorse, not a showhorse.” The citizens of New Jersey were convinced and gave Lautenberg a decisive victory.
Some pundits thought that Lautenberg’s focus on small legislative victories and his participation in the grind of routine legislation somehow diminished him, especially in comparison with other New Jersey senators he served with — Bill Bradley and Robert Torricelli — who seemed more articulate or involved in bigger, more urgent issues. I thought these pundits were wrong then, and they seem more wrong today.
Lautenberg was not the senator picked to go on the Sunday chatfests, nor noted for some glorious floor speech that went viral. He believed in practical, small and medium-sized victories to help constituents whether it was government funding for infrastructure or developing rules forcing industry to disclose levels of toxic emissions. As much as I’m sure he wanted to change the world, he didn’t believe in quixotic missions; he was a legislator not a movement leader.
I was in the room in 1989 when Lautenberg’s greatest legislative accomplishment was sealed. As was his style, Lautenberg bypassed regular Senate procedures and added an airline smoking ban provision to the transportation appropriations bill. As subcommittee chairman, he correctly assumed that other senators wouldn’t make a fuss because they all had earmarks in the bill. The bill sailed intact through the Senate after a little bit of action on the Senate floor. The House, however, was lobbied hard by the tobacco and airline industries, so the provision ended up as the last conference item debated. The House wanted a compromise, asking for a ban on flights only under two hours. Lautenberg said “no.” Three hours, “no.” Four hours, “no.” Someone suggested we take a break to cool things down.
During the break, House members kept at him to “give us something.” A staffer for the Transportation Department in the room whispered in Lautenberg’s ear, “You know, six hours covers 99 percent of flights. It’s a virtual ban.” Lautenberg sat down after the break and was gracious as could be. “I’ll tell you what,” he said, “I’ll give you six hours.” The House members were actually grateful to get a concession. The deal was done. Lautenberg, as was almost always the case, pocketed the victory and our news release that evening called the agreement “a ban.”
In the cable TV/Internet-driven world we live in, the Frank Lautenbergs of the world will never became famous. A legislator toiling away at a subcommittee markup of an appropriations bill isn’t going to be on Piers Morgan or the subject of a viral video. But if a senator is judged by real, practical effects on people’s lives, Lautenberg’s legislative record on environment, transportation and commerce will leave an enormous legacy.
Steven Schlein, a senior vice president at Dezenhall Resources, was press secretary to Lautenberg from 1987 to 1994.