America turned after World War II to veterans such as Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy to guide the fortunes of the nation. Now the last WWII vet in Congress has died, as the overall number of military veterans in Congress has dwindled.
New Jersey Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg's death today ends a string of 115 WWII veterans who served in the U.S. Senate. But it also portends a declining number of veterans serving in Congress.
The Washington Post reports that as recently as the 111th Congress, which ended in January 2011, there were 26 members of the Senate who were veterans. With Lautenberg's death and the retirements of Iowa Senator Tom Harkin and South Dakota's Tim Johnson, that number could shrivel to as few as 12 sitting senators when the 114th Congress convenes in January 2015.
The U.S. House has a similar profile, according to the Washington Post. Only 19 percent of current House members saw active military service, which the newspaper says is the lowest percentage since WWII.
"Sending American men and women to war is the most serious decision Congress can make," writes Chris Cilizza of the Post. "Fewer and fewer people making those decisions in the future will be able to speak from a position of experience and authority on the subject."
Lautenberg, 89, died of complications from viral pneumonia. He was in his fifth Senate term, though he retired briefly in 2000, then returned as a 78-year-old "freshman." A self-made millionaire who built Automatic Data Processing, Lautenberg was a feisty critic of the Bush Administration and champion for tougher anti-smoking and environmental laws. Lautenberg won his first race for the Senate by defeating Millicent Fenwick, whom at, 72 years of age, he called too old to serve.