The late Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J., was honored Wednesday at synagogue on New York City’s Upper East Side through a series of moving speeches, a pair of famous tunes belted out by a Broadway singer and even jokes about former Sen. Strom Thurmond’s fondness for the ladies.
It was a fitting tribute to the Senate’s last serving World War II veteran, a man who leaves behind 13 grandchildren and a career he loved. Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. delivered eulogies, in addition to speeches from Lautenberg’s four children, two step-children, widow and several grandchildren.
“The only thing that would have made him happier than seeing you all here is if this were a fundraiser for his next campaign,” Lautenberg’s widow, Bonnie Englebardt Lautenberg said to the packed temple. Two of Lautenberg’s children joked that not even two weeks before his death, Lautenberg wondered whether he should change his mind about retirement and run again. “He felt like he was in the World Series every day,” his widow continued.
According to a pool report from a local reporter, 41 senators attended the service, including 17 who were honorary pall bearers. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Sen. and Gov. Jon Corzine were also present, as well as Broadway singer Brian Stokes Mitchell, who sang “The Impossible Dream” from “Man of La Mancha” and Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.”
Lautenberg’s casket will be taken to the Frank Lautenberg Rail Station in Secaucus, N.J., before being taken by train to Washington, D.C., where the senator will lie in repose on the Senate floor before being transferred for burial at Arlington National Cemetery. As Lautenberg’s casket was being moved from the front of the synagogue, strings and a piano played “America the Beautiful.”
Lautenberg’s widow thanked Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., for “making magic happen” to allow Lautenberg to lie in repose. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., was the last senator to lie in repose (in 2010), and was only the third to do so since World War II.
Some of the country’s top politicians shared their memories of Lautenberg, with Clinton repeating a favorite line of the New Jersey senator’s. “As Frank would say, it’s not where you sit that counts, it’s where you stand,” she said before listing all of the causes and Americans he had stood with: gun violence victims, AIDS patients, women.
Biden, in his trademark style, brought humor to an otherwise deep speech.
One of Lautenberg’s step-daughters told a story of Lautenberg pranking her one year at a White House Christmas party by introducing her to Thurmond, the longtime South Carolina senator who was notorious in the Senate hallways for violating women’s personal space. “He was a strong man for his age and surprisingly affectionate,” quipped Lautenberg’s step-daughter about the hug she received, to tumultuous laughter.
“I knew Strom Thurmond so well that, literally, I was asked to do his eulogy. I did his eulogy. This is a lot easier,” Biden said at the outset of his speech, to even louder laughs.
Biden told of another time when, as a senator, he was sprinting to catch an Amtrak train home to Wilmington, Del., when a conductor told him, “Joey, don’t worry. We’re holding [the train] for Lautenberg.”
On a more serious note, the vice president looked at Lautenberg’s children and said, “A friend is someone who walks in when others walk out. Every difficult time in my career, your father walked in.”
He closed with a line touching off his own heritage, despite wearing a yarmulka and teasing earlier about Lautenberg having dubbed him an honorary Jew: “As we Irish would say, he was a man. He was a real man.”