Editor's note: Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton's presidential campaign in 1992 and was counselor to Clinton in the White House.
(CNN) -- Frank Lautenberg grew up in Paterson, New Jersey -- a tough mill town. Served in World War II, where he scampered up improvised rickety poles to string wire to keep the lines of communication open. Went to Columbia on the GI Bill, then made a fortune as co-founder of ADP. He was among the first to see how computers could revolutionize business, and he put the new technology to work processing paychecks.
He made millions in business, but never abandoned his liberal roots. His generous support for progressive causes earned him a spot on Nixon's infamous Enemies List. In 1982 he defeated Millicent Fenwick -- the pipe-smoking, progressive Republican who was the inspiration for the Doonesbury character Lacey Davenport -- and became a senator.
In 1988 I served as Frank's press secretary. Few bosses were tougher. He was running for re-election against golden boy Pete Dawkins -- Heisman Trophy winner at West Point, Rhodes scholar, Vietnam vet, Army general, millionaire banker -- a man so handsome, he was a model in ads for men's shirts. Frank was not as glib as Dawkins, so I told the press, "Frank may not be a great communicator, but he's a great legislator." That did not go over well. "I am paying you to say good things about me," he thundered. "I can get people to criticize me for free!"
Frank was so cantankerous, so combative, that he often called his 1988 campaign manager, the great James Carville, "the second opponent." But he rose to the occasion, besting Dawkins in a debate and embracing the nickname Dawkins used to dismiss him: "swamp dog." From that day to the last time I saw him, I would always ask Frank how the old swamp dog was doing. He never lost his bite.
As a senator, Lautenberg leaves an impressive legacy. The Lautenberg Amendment helped free Soviet Jews and is still used by oppressed people seeking freedom in America.
If you enjoy flying smoke-free, you can thank Frank. Firefighters who now have a right to know the chemicals they face in a fire can thank Frank. Millions who ride Amtrak or use mass transit can thank Frank. If you believe working people deserve a higher minimum wage, you can thank Frank. All of us who support the U.S.-Israel relationship can thank Frank.
His brother and sister veterans have lost a friend, and those who support gun safety legislation have lost a powerful ally.
Me? I have lost an example of toughness and tenacity. In an age of blow-dried, prefab, Ken-doll politicians, Frank was the real deal: a hard-bitten, gut-punching, proudly liberal swamp dog.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul Begala.