Friends, family, dozens of senators and other officials, including Vice President Joe Biden and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, gathered under a Park Avenue synagogue’s stained glass dome Wednesday to pay tribute to New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg, who died Monday at the age of 89.
The touching service included many moments of laughter and tears. But the highlight was the eulogy by Mr. Biden, who joked about how Mr. Lautenberg never stopped one-upping him during the 25 years they served together as close friends in the senate.
Mr. Biden, one of the last to speak at the service–which featured remarks from Mr. Lautenberg’s various relatives and a musical performance by singer Brian Stokes Mitchell–began by poking gentle fun at the number of speakers
“If there’s a definition of redundancy, I’m it!” he told the group, joking that he was there to speak on behalf of the Pope.
Mr. Biden later told the group about how he’d spent years without a home in Washington, D.C. and estimated he’d made 8,000 round-trips back and forth from Delaware, always riding Amtrak. He was frequently in a rush and described having to sprint to Union Station–often missing his train. He rode so many times, he said, that each and every conductor knew him by name. Mr. Biden even invited them over for Christmas dinner and barbecues. “They’re still my buddies,” he bragged.
But one evening, as Mr. Biden was running to catch his train, the conductor told him to relax. “He said, ‘Hey Joe, don’t worry. You’re OK. We’re holding it up for Lautenberg.” Mr. Biden was incredulous. “They never once held it for me!”
“I saved Amtrak three times before he was elected!” Mr. Biden protested, only half-jokingly.
He also made reference to the eulogy he was forced to give to the late Senenator Strom Thurmond, a former segregationist from South Carolina.
“This is a lot easier!” he joked. “Oh boy, I’m about to get myself into trouble!”
Mr. Biden described how, right around Christmastime, Mr. Lautenberg had reached out to him to talk about whether he should run for re-election. He’d retired once before–only to return two years later. But Mr. Lautenberg was worried because he’d begun to grow weak.
“What the hell do you say to Frank Lautenberg?” asked Mr. Biden, who said he replied, “I think you’d win again … I think even Christie would vote for you!” He pointed to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who was in the audience. The crowd laughed and Mr. Christie gave a little wave.
But his remarks also included moments of quiet reflection.
“I realize it’s beyond my capacity to find the words to do justice to Frank Lautenberg,” Mr. Biden said, describing Mr. Lautenberg as a man of character. “He always thought in terms of what he could do, what he should do.”
Ms. Clinton also spoke. She discussed how Mr. Lautenberg often sat with her in the back of the Senate chamber during votes. “Frank always had something to say,” she recalled. “You just couldn’t help but have a smile on your face at least one time during the conversation.”
“He loved and he was loved,” she said. “And after all, that’s what makes a great life.”
Overall, family and friends described the late senator as an unstoppable presence who never forgot his roots as the son of poor immigrants growing up in Trenton, New Jersey. A fiercely principled fighter, he was “not what you would call warm and fuzzy,” said his daughter, Ellen, but deeply loved.
After the service, Mr. Lautenberg’s casket was escorted by Capitol Police to the Secaucus Junction train station, which is named in his honor. From there, his body will travel by train to Washington, D.C. where a ceremony will be held on the steps of the U.S. Capitol Thursday, followed by a rare viewing inside the U.S. Senate chamber.
He will be buried Friday in Arlington National Cemetery.