In the span of two short minutes, the man with the wispy white hair and the thick Eastern European accent denounced both Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder -- calling the latter a “political prostitute” and quipping that “the sex workers in my district objected so I will no longer use that phrase” -- deplored the “monstrous evil of the Taliban” and “Ahmadinejadism” in the Middle East, and reminded Europe of its heavy debt to American power during World War II and the Cold War.
It was not what the assembled crowd, gathered to witness this summer’s dedication of a memorial to the victims of Communism, had expected from a Democrat representing California‘s deep-blue 12th congressional district, just south of San Francisco. “That guy is a Democrat?” a man in the audience asked incredulously.
Tom Lantos, who died yesterday at the age of 80 after losing a struggle with cancer, was indeed a Democrat. It is also the case, however, that he did not always march in lockstep with the party that has come to be defined by its irrational loathing of President Bush and its poll-tested calls for retreat from Iraq. When it came to his core convictions, Lantos was a partisan of no party. In the interest of a noble cause, he spoke bluntly and did not flinch from giving offense. Indeed, his 28-year career in politics provides ample testimony that, especially in foreign affairs, Lantos’ main concern was safeguarding human rights and advancing American interests -- party loyalty and diplomacy be damned.
To say that he could be a thorn in the side of his opponents is to understate the case. In 1990, when the Bush administration was at pains to portray Saddam Hussein as an ally, Lantos lashed out against the accomodationist policy. “At what point will this administration recognize that this is not a nice guy?” he demanded. An early supporter of the Iraq war, he had little use for the charges of his fellow Democrats that the United States was alienating the international community by proposing to topple the Iraqi tyrant. On the contrary, Lantos pronounced himself “disgusted by the blind intransigence and utter ingratitude” of France, Germany and Belgium when the NATO powers ostentatiously opposed the U.S.-led intervention. Earlier this fall, Lantos horrified Dutch lawmakers bemoaning the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay when he observed, accurately, that “Europe was not as outraged by Auschwitz as by Guantanamo Bay.” This was not, to put it mildly, how a Democrat was supposed to sound.
That Lantos spoke with unapologetic conviction about human rights was no coincidence. Born into a Jewish family in Budapest in 1928, Lantos fought in the anti-Nazi resistance as a teenager, before being imprisoned in a labor camp at the age of 16. With most of his family perishing in the Holocaust, Lantos was saved by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg; he remained the only Holocaust survivor ever to serve in Congress. As an elected official, Lantos would later honor Wallenberg with the greatest tribute he could imagine, successfully sponsoring a 1981 resolution to grant him honorary U.S. citizenship.
Arriving in the U.S. in 1947 to attend the University of Washington on an academic scholarship, Lantos became an American citizen in 1953 and taught at San Francisco State University for 30 years before seeking a congressional seat in 1980. In a 1980 election that marked the political birth of the stoutly anti-communist Reagan Democrat, and that saw the Democrats lose the White House in a landslide, it was perhaps symbolic that Lantos became one of only four Democrats to replace a Republican: On the key foreign-policy issue of the time -- the threat of communism -- Lantos stood squarely with President Reagan.
“He was an early supporter of the captive nations strategy, which was the concept that we should support people behind the Iron Curtain and recognize them as allies against communism,” recalled Lee Edwards of the conservative Heritage Foundation. The driving force behind the memorial to the international victims of communism that today stands in the capital, Edwards repeatedly tried to reach across the political isle to gain support for its establishment. Many refused, but Lantos did not. “Tom had a very personal relationship with the two ‘isms’ of the last century, Nazism and Communism,” said Edwards, pointing to Lantos’ experiences under Nazism and the Communist dictatorship that succeeded it after World War II.
In part because he was a direct witness to the horrors of Holocaust, Lantos was one of the strongest champions of Israel against her terrorist enemies. In 2001, he sponsored what would become known as the “Lantos Amendment” to suspend aid to Lebanon unless it deployed armed forces to stop Hezbollah attacks against Israel. The following year, he vilified Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian leadership as a “murderous mob” and called the Palestinian Authority a “clearly corrupt, terrorism dictatorship" with which it is "impossible to negotiate,” a bit of straight talk that prompted a former head of the American- Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee to challenge him for his congressional seat. Undaunted, Lantos again outraged critics, especially on the Left, when he properly dismissed the 2002 UN conference in Durban, South Africa, as a “forum for lynching Israel.” For his efforts, Lantos in 2003 received a “Friend of Israel Award” from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. In his acceptance speech, Lantos paid generous tribute to the co-honoree, his good “friend” Tom Delay.
On the military front, Lantos often showed a wisdom unmatched by his party. Not only did he enthusiastically champion the invasion of Iraq, but he pressed for a more muscular line against other dictatorships in the Middle East. A leading supporter of the Syria Accountability Act of 2003, Lantos also urged a get-tough approach with Tehran long after much of his party that had come to the conclusion that the United States was chiefly to blame for the strained relations with the Islamist regime. Among his last legislative triumphs was the “Iran Counter-Proliferation Act of 2007,” which requires parent companies to pay penalties for subsidiaries doing business with Iran.
With his propensity to defy party lines and follow his conscience, it is little wonder that Lantos inspired a broad following. Max Teleki, the head of the Hungarian American Coalition, was among those who cited the congressman as a mentor. “I’ve always thought of myself as a Tom Lantos Democrat,” Teleki said in an interview. “He was an incredible advocate for human rights and he thought it the greatest moral export of the United States.”
Not every chapter of his political career was equally distinguished. On domestic policy, Lantos took his cues from the leftist Congressional Progressive Caucus, opposing cuts in capital gains and income taxes and refusing to eliminate the death tax. Citizens for Tax Justice, a left-wing group that considers taxation as an instrument of class warfare, rewarded him with a perfect 100 percent rating. That economic growth might be critical to improving the lives of citizens -- that it was, in its way, a human-rights issue -- seems never to have crossed the congressman’s mind.
Lantos also made severe misjudgments on foreign policy. These included his perilously ill-advised trip last April to Syria, where he accompanied Nancy Pelosi to promote what he called “an alternative Democratic foreign policy.” Justifying the trip, Lantos said, “I view my job as beginning with restoring overseas credibility and respect for the United States.” In reality, the trip merely sent the message that the United States had no cohesive policy toward the rogue state and thus served to undermine the very credibility Lantos sought to restore.
More unfortunate still was Lantos’ decision to reverse course on Iraq and oppose the troop surge last fall. “Our efforts in Iraq are a mess, and throwing in more troops will not improve it,” Lantos insisted in voting against the surge. Recent events have not been kind to such fatalism, but even if the troop had been a failure, the Congressman’s support for precipitous withdrawal and the regional chaos it would have unleashed was a betrayal of both human rights and the American national interest to which he had pledged his career.
Such occasional lapses in good sense notwithstanding, Tom Lantos served his adoptive country well and faithfully. Congress will be a less interesting place without him and the Democratic Party, having purged its other prominent national-security Democrat in Joseph Lieberman, will likely grow more conformist. Few who followed Lantos’ impressive career -- save perhaps Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder -- will not lament that it has ended for good.