Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Why you should thank Frank

By Paul Begala, CNN Contributor
updated 9:55 AM EDT, Wed June 5, 2013
Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-New Jersey, passed away on Monday, June 3. Here, he presides over a hearing on Superstorm Sandy in Washington on December 6, 2012. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-New Jersey, passed away on Monday, June 3. Here, he presides over a hearing on Superstorm Sandy in Washington on December 6, 2012.
HIDE CAPTION
Frank Lautenberg through the years
Frank Lautenberg through the years
Frank Lautenberg through the years
Frank Lautenberg through the years
Frank Lautenberg through the years
Frank Lautenberg through the years
Frank Lautenberg through the years
Frank Lautenberg through the years
Frank Lautenberg through the years
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Paul Begala: Frank Lautenberg, who died this week, grew up in tough town, found success
  • He says Lautenberg's legendary toughness helped him win competitive elections
  • He says his Senate legacy includes amendment that helped free Soviet Jews
  • Begala: If you like Amtrak, no smoking on planes, higher minimum wage, thank Frank

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.

Paul Begala
Paul Begala

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!"

Lautenberg: The last 'swamp dog'

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.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg dies at 89

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.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul Begala.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 8:35 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 1:38 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT