Frank Lautenberg was very much at home in the Senate he joined in 1982. He was a veteran among veterans, a World War II warrior among fellow warriors. But with Lautenberg's death Monday at age 89, the dramatic changes he witnessed in the Senate go beyond the fact that he was the last World War II veteran to serve in the body.
Today's Senate is home to fewer veterans — not just of World War II, but of any war — than at any time since the Senate historian started tracking them in the 79th Congress of 1945-47. The number of veterans in the body peaked at 81 in 1977 and never fell below 50 until 1997. But as the veterans of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam pass from the political scene, the decline has become rapid. In today's Senate, there are a record-low 16 veterans.
The contrast is sharp with the Senate that Lautenberg first saw. He had served in the Army Signal Corps from 1942 to 1946 and had experiences similar to many of his new colleagues. It was a bond that routinely overrode partisanship and made lawmaking easier. When Lautenberg was sworn in, there were 73 other veterans welcoming him, including 36 who served in World War II, several who fought in Korea, and the first two Vietnam veterans to be elected to the Senate. Only five years earlier, the last World War I veteran — Mike Mansfield of Montana — had left the upper chamber.
His early days in the Senate came toward the end of a period when World War II veterans controlled all the levers of power in Washington, wielding an influence greater even than what was seen after the Civil War. Every presidential election from 1952 to 1996 featured a World War II veteran atop one of the two tickets — from Dwight Eisenhower to Bob Dole over 12 elections. Eight presidents, from Eisenhower to George H.W. Bush, were in uniform during the war. (Jimmy Carter's was that of a midshipman at the Naval Academy.)
Now, only two World War II veterans remain in power in Washington, both in the House: Republican Rep. Ralph Hall of Texas, who is 90; and Democratic Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, who turns 87 in July. Hall flew planes based on aircraft carriers from 1942 to 1945. Dingell joined the Army when he turned 18 in 1944 and was in the invasion force poised to attack Japan when the war ended.
The shrinking influence of veterans was also evident in the 2012 presidential race. The Obama-Biden and Romney-Ryan tickets included no veterans, the first time that has happened in 80 years, since 1932.