With Frank Lautenberg gone, Greatest Generation fades from politics

Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg/Official Photo

Article Highlights

  • Over the last 7 decades, 115 WWII veterans have served in the Senate. Frank Lautenberg was the last of them.

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  • There aren't likely to be any more members of the Greatest Generation to serve in Congress.

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  • In the 78 years since WWII, veterans have played an outsized role in American politics.

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Over the last seven decades, 115 veterans of World War II have served in the United States Senate. This week the last of them, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, died.

Two World War II veterans still serve in the House -- Ralph Hall of Texas, who was a Navy pilot, and John Dingell, who joined the Army at 18 and was scheduled to take part in the planned invasion of Japan.

There aren't likely to be any more members of what Tom Brokaw labeled the Greatest Generation to serve in Congress. All surviving World War II veterans (except a few who lied about their age) are at least 85 years old.

In the 78 years since World War II ended, veterans of the conflict have played an outsized role in American politics -- more than veterans of any other conflict since the Civil War.

Not much notice was paid when the last Spanish-American War veteran in Congress, Barratt O'Hara, died in 1969.

Nor was much attention directed at the retirement from Congress in the 1970s of the last two World War I veterans -- Sen. Mike Mansfield of Montana, (who lied about his age to enlist) and Sen. John Sparkman of Alabama (who served in the Students Army Training Corps).

In contrast, World War II veterans made a big splash in politics starting shortly after the war ended. Dozens of young veterans were elected to Congress in 1946, including future Presidents Kennedy and Nixon.

The two had offices near each other and, as Christopher Matthews chronicled in his 1996 book "Kennedy and Nixon," were on friendly terms until they became political rivals.

When they ran for president in 1960 they were both in their 40s -- a vivid contrast with the much older presidents of the previous two decades.

From Kennedy's victory that year until George H. W. Bush's defeat in 1992, a period of 32 years, every president served in the military during World War II, although Johnson's service was brief and Carter did not graduate from the Naval Academy until after the war was over.

Many other members of the Greatest Generation entered politics early and made a mark. Lloyd Bentsen, first elected to Congress in 1948, and George McGovern, first elected in 1956, were both bomber pilots -- extremely hazardous duty.

Three future senators -- Philip Hart of Michigan, Daniel Inouye of Hawaii and Bob Dole of Kansas -- first met in a rehabilitation center in Battle Creek, Mich., recovering from serious wounds.

More than 400,000 American servicemen died in World War II -- 100 times the American death toll in Iraq -- and the lives of millions were disrupted. But wartime service also opened up opportunities for many.

One of them was Frank Lautenberg. His prospects seemed dim. His father died when he was a teenager and his mother ran a sandwich shop. But thanks to the G.I. Bill of Rights he was able to attend Columbia University.

Most big corporations in those days did not hire Jews for management positions. But Lautenberg was able to get in on the ground floor of a startup company called Automatic Payrolls Inc.

It filled a niche created by the wartime institution of income tax withholding. Businesses needed someone to do the paperwork and Lautenberg was hired as a salesman by the firm's founders.

Soon he became head of the renamed Automatic Data Processing and under his leadership it processed paychecks for about 10 percent of the national workforce. With the fortune he made Lautenberg was able to pay for his first Senate campaign in 1982.

Like many but by no means all World War II veterans, Lautenberg was a liberal Democrat, a fighter unafraid of navigating the sometimes troubled waters of New Jersey politics.

He retired from the Senate in 2000 but was happy to be called back by Democratic politicos to replace his scandal-struck colleague Bob Torricelli, with whom he had a stormy relationship, on the 2002 ballot.

The Greatest Generation has had a long and sometimes stormy run in American politics. Johnson was tripped up by Vietnam and Nixon by Watergate.

Reagan did much to restore the faith in institutions that seemed so strong in what his generation always called The War.

Now, with just two World War II veterans in the House, the Greatest Generation is finally passing on into history.

 

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