January 10, 2010, 8:11AM
He relentlessly pushes the swivel chair from side to side as he speaks of why he does the kinds of things he does. Frank Lautenberg, who has just finished his second news conference in little more than 24 hours at Newark Liberty International Airport, is still burning off energy like a Linden refinery.
“I pick issues that affect people personally,” says the senior United States senator from New Jersey. “This one does. I have to get involved in it.”
This one: The tragicomic failure of the Transportation Security Administration to halt — or even notice — the young swain who got past security at Newark Liberty International to kiss a girl, triggering a six-hour lockdown of a national transportation hub that inconvenienced and angered thousands of passengers, delayed flights throughout the world and raised questions about the efficacy of the system.
An incident that came days after someone got past eight years of post-9/11 security measures and tried to detonate a bomb on a flight over Detroit — a potential tragedy stopped, not by intelligence, air marshals or advanced technology, but by luck when the underwear bomb failed and by fellow passengers nabbed the guy.
It’s a moment made for Lautenberg who, after 30 years in public life, has consistently demonstrated these traits — a devotion to transportation, a habit of drawing criticism as aloof and, perhaps, too old for public service, and an uncanny knack of periodically seizing big, headlinegenerating issues and thereby making his critics look wrong.
“What did you expect — he’s the airport man,” says former governor Brendan Byrne. A reference to Lautenberg’s interest in transportation that began when the wealthy businessman was appointed to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in 1978. “He had to be in the middle of it. Good for him.”
Byrne and Lautenberg share something beyond politics and party affiliation. They were born in 1924 — Lautenberg will be 86 on Jan. 23, Byrne on April 1. In 2008, both Lautenberg’s primary and general election opponents tried with poorly executed subtlety to make his age an issue. They failed, and he won by his biggest margin ever.
Failed because, just when someone begins to wonder whatever happened to Frank Lautenberg, the white-haired man in a gray suit and comfortable shoes is standing in front of a bank of television cameras, bathed in unkind light, but showing staying power.
“My wife asks, ‘Don’t you get tired?’ ’’ Lautenberg says during an interview. “I guess I should be tired, especially after this week, but I don’t feel tired.”
The security-jumper at Newark’s airport was just the latest in a series of events that has been bringing the avuncular senator back in front of the state’s, the country’s, and even the world’s cameras for decades.
In 1988, he became the champion for the families of the victims of Pan-Am 103, blown up by a bomb planted by a Libyan agent over Lockerbie, Scotland. His work led to a presidential appointment to a special commission on aviation safety.
Six years later, he exercised his senatorial prerogatives to block foreign aid to Jordan until the kingdom agreed to return the two young children of Parsippany doctor Mohammed Abequa, who killed his wife and then fled to his native land.
Lautenberg was probably the most visible face of outrage when a Dubai company sought to buy management rights to New York and New Jersey ports in 2006.
More recently, he seemed to be out of the public view while other senators grabbed attention over issues like Afghanistan, financial reorganization, health care, and the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the United States Supreme Court. Even his easy defeat of Republican Richard Zimmer in November 2008 was little noticed in an election that brought the first African-American to the White House.
Although he has spent 26 years in the Senate, Lautenberg lost seniority by retiring in 2001 and then running again — as a favor to a panicked Democratic Party — in 2002.
But, in the last few months, the gods of notoriety have smiled warmly on Lautenberg. It started in late August when he competed with U.S. Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9th) and Englewood Mayor Michael Wildes in taking credit for preventing Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi from pitching a tent in the Bergen County town while he visited the United Nations.
Then, just a week before the Newark airport incident, Lautenberg — in his words — “used the hammer” of senatorial power to persuade the Brazilian government to allow the return of Sean Goldman to his father David in an international custody dispute. He put a hold on trade benefits that meant more than $2 billion to the Brazilians. “I received all kinds of calls — including from the State Department — asking me to lift the hold. I said, ‘Once Sean is home, I will.’ ’’
Eight days later, the man in the light-colored jacket sneaked under the security barrier at the airport and the story just wouldn’t end. The TSA’s cameras didn’t work. The agency didn’t call the cops for an hour or more.
Lautenberg dominated the first press conference Wednesday, although U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez and U.S. Rep. Donald Payne (D-10th Dist.) also were there. They faced 14 television cameras. The next day, Lautenberg had his own solo news conference — and faced only one fewer camera, despite the late scheduling and only a few hours’ notice.
Lautenberg predicted, “The attention will help catch this man.” The man, identified by police as Rutgers graduate student Haisong Jiang of Piscataway, was arrested Friday night.
But should the incident attract so much attention? Peter McDonough, a faculty member at the Eagleton Institute of Politics and a Republican commentator, says he believes it comes “nowhere close” to the attempted bombing over Detroit.
“The story was really the inconvenience, making thousands of passengers go through the most unpleasant traveling experience twice,’’ says McDonough. “If the Detroit incident hadn’t occurred, it would be a one-day story.
Without mentioning Lautenberg, he says the anger about the inconvenience “provided an opening for some politicians to out-Schumer Chuck Schumer.’’ That’s a reference to New York Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer, known for hogging the limelight.
Former New Jersey governor Jim Florio, a Democrat, says he believes the airport story “was blown out of proportion” and “created a media circus.”
“I’m concerned about national security, too, but this incident is getting far more attention than it deserves.
Even Byrne, who congratulated Lautenberg on his initiative, says he thinks the airport incident provoked “an overreaction.”
Maybe — but it’s a story that lives on, and not simply because it is, as McDonough called it, “a story that somehow manages to combine romance and terrorism.”
Late Saturday, the senator was still “outraged,” telling one newspaper that he thought the securityjumper’s visa should be revoked. Then, a few hours later, he seemed to be thinking that maybe that was going a little too far: Just toughen the laws, he said, and the security — that was enough.
In two weeks, the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation will begin hearings about what went wrong. Hearings requested by Frank Lautenberg, a member.
“This gives us an opportunity to do something, to improve security for everyone using our airports,’’ says Lautenberg.
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