Sen. Frank Lautenberg has no formal ties to the entertainment industry. But in the past few years, the New Jersey Democrat's office in the Hart Building has become a mecca for Hollywood celebrities.
In May, Jessica Alba met with Lautenberg ahead of a press conference the two of them held in the Capitol to urge the passage of a chemical safety bill. Thanks in large part to Alba, the otherwise ho-hum piece of legislation got loads of media coverage. “It’s the first time I’ve played a leading man,” Lautenberg joked.
Last year, “Mad Men” star January Jones visited Lautenberg to lobby on behalf of a shark protection bill, and Lautenberg told The Huffington Post that he was mightily impressed with the young actress. "January is young and vivacious and beautiful, and very often people who have that kind of following don't develop an interest in serious things, but she had a real serious interest in sharks,” he said. Lautenberg backed the legislation.
In 2009, Lautenberg hosted singer Nick Jonas of the Jonas Brothers for a meeting about juvenile diabetes research funding. He invited young diabetes sufferers to attend, including his granddaughter, Maddie Birer. Jonas spoke about his experience living with the disease, and Lautenberg said his granddaughter "almost fainted" when she learned of the event.
But famous visitors can present a challenge for Lautenberg's staff. During the Jonas meeting, the hallways outside Lautenberg's office were packed with fans and reporters, all angling for a glimpse of the pop star. Three paparazzi photographers showed up, too, and their aggressive tactics led to a heated verbal exchange with a Lautenberg staff member.
But for Lautenberg, the benefits of celebrity advocacy far outweigh the hassles. "There’s no question that [a celebrity] helps make the case [for an issue].” Even so, he doesn’t seek out famous faces -- they find him. “These performers develop the interest in their issues, and in legislation,” he said, “and I'm just the skipper of the boat.”
He's also the occasional tour guide. “I brought Fran Drescher down to the Capitol and introduced her to senators a few years ago because she's interested in cancer and she’s been a victim of it," he said. "Same with Sigourney Weaver, [but] her issue was saving coral reefs.”
For the celebrities, Lautenberg hopes he can help to put them at ease in an unfamiliar, and potentially intimidating, environment. “Each of [the celebrities I meet], because of their radical departure from their business, is a little nervous,” Lautenberg explained, but “if I have an easy time with people, that's because I fundamentally like them.”
The 87-year-old lawmaker said he especially likes interacting with young people. “I recently became the oldest member of the Senate, and here I've got these connections with younger people who are looking at the future, and that’s great,” he said.
Lautenberg, who fought in World War II when he was still a teenager, said he admires what many young celebrities have accomplished in a short time. He also hopes that his own story can impact young people, whether they're famous or not.
“I had a great amount of success [in my life], and in a way, I hope that perhaps it inspires young people [I interact with], that if you're born in poverty and make the effort and get an education, things can be done, and you don't have to die in poverty.”