His obituaries will note that he was the last remaining World War II veteran in the Senate (John Dingell of MI and Ralph Hall of TX remain in the House). More remarkable to me is that Lautenberg made his first attempt at elected office in 1982 (a successful Senate bid), at an age (58) when most people are planning retirement. Losing candidates for the Senate that year included Jerry Brown (who lost to Pete Wilson!) and Haley Barbour. Ronald Reagan was in the midst of his turbulent first term, and was about to agree to a series of tax increases. Bill Clinton won his first “comeback” election, regaining the governorship of Arkansas. Ted Kennedy was mulling another presidential campaign (he ultimately gave it a pass) after losing the nomination to Jimmy Carter two years earlier.
Lautenberg entered a Senate that was very different from the one he departed at death: Howard Baker, the sort of Republican that would today be barred from office for chronic RINOism, was the Majority Leader. His last colleague from that era is Orrin Hatch, who beat down a Tea Party challenge last year; the next-to-last was Dick Lugar, who succumbed to another.
Despite his relatively advanced age, Lautenberg served three terms before “retiring” in 2000, and then managed to stay in the Senate for more than a decade after his comeback in 2002.
He was perhaps best known as one of the Senate’s most unapologetic advocates for gun regulation, and he lived just long enough to see the issue revived as a major national preoccupation this year–and then shelved once again with the defeat of the Manchin-Toomey bill. But more than any other colleague, Lautenberg was in a position to understand the long arc of history and its unpredictable length, and his contributions will endure.