Tom Lantos's liberal anti-authoritarianism

He also never pulled any punches, telling Jimmy Carter to his face that he'd forfeited his role as a peacemaker.

Lantos 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Lantos 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
My first meeting with Tom Lantos occurred when we sat next to each other at an AIPAC dinner in 1978. Tom was working for Senator Joe Biden as an economist, I as a defense and international affairs budget analyst with the Senate Budget Committee. We both opposed the Carter administration's sale of F-15 jets to Saudi Arabia. We shared many other common interests in foreign policy - a close and strong US relationship with Israel, the promotion of democracy abroad, a contempt for and total opposition to the Soviet Union. We became fast friends; so many of our conversations were conducted over hot tea in the Senate cafeteria; we were both insulin-depended diabetics. Three areas of international affairs drove Tom. First was Israel. When he was elected to the US House of Representatives in 1980, as AIPAC's new executive director, I was one of the first to welcome Tom to the "other side" of Capitol Hill. He did not need a pep talk to join the House Foreign Affairs Committee. As he said then and he said until his death, "I am here to defend and strengthen Israel because that defends and strengthens the United States." That mindset is eternally imbued in the outlook of his two daughters, Annette and Katrina, and 17 grandchildren. Second was human rights about which he was intense and focused on a daily basis. Where the liberties and rights of a sole individual or groups were violated, Tom spoke up. He co-founded the House Human Rights Caucus in the late 1980s; before achieving seniority, this structure provided him a platform from which to point out the absence of rule of law, independent judiciaries, media freedom, freely functioning civil societies around the world. A generation of young people were enticed to come to Washington and intern for the Caucus, learning a value-oriented foreign policy, my daughter Amy being one who worked for the Caucus one summer. Tom fully supported the democracy-oriented broadcast journalism of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. He and his beloved Annette visited the broadcast headquarters in Prague. His speech at the radios' dinner in 2001 commemorating 50 years of broadcasting remains a Web site gem. When the Russians kidnapped RFE/RL's Chechen correspondent Andre Babitsky and hid him in a farmhouse in Dagastan for nearly six weeks, Tom gladly added his voice to the chorus of pro-democracy advocates around the world urging the award-winning journalist's identification and release. Finally, because of his Hungarian origins and experiences, he belonged to the school of liberal anti-authoritarians, his life defying Nazi savagery and murder and his professional career defying Communist capture and oppression. To the end, Tom publicly opposed dictators and their regimes - in China, Burma, Putin's Russia, Africa, Saddam's Iraq, Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela, and those that condoned them whenever they existed, even multi-national companies headquartered in his home district. HIGHLY INTELLIGENT, highly educated, and highly traveled, Tom seriously studied and analyzed international issues. He knew, for instance, two generations of Hungary's Communist and democratic leaderships. He knew NATO and EU complicated issues well and the leaders of those international instruments of American foreign policy. He visited Israel and other points in the Middle East frequently. He often expressed to me his disappointment that the ruling clerics never issued him a visa to visit Iran. But in looking back over my 46 years of working in and around Congress, Tom's knowledge and eloquence about happenings abroad were unique in the House of Representatives. In argument, he did not mince words. Just four months ago, I was with him in his private office when he received former president Jimmy Carter. Carter came to brief him and a few other House Members about a newly formed group of leaders with international reputations. The purpose of "The Elders," he said, is resolving regional conflicts such as Darfur, Burma, and the Palestinian question. When the former president finished his presentation, Tom told Carter that he had read his new book on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict three times. He said he had underlined particular passages; he pointed out substantive differences between the hard cover and paperback editions, objectionable items not being in the latter except for the word "Apartheid" still in the title. He let loose, telling the author that he "sided" with the Palestinians, that he possessed a "subconscious and blinding hostility toward Israel." And because of this "venom," Lantos said, Carter "had totally forfeited" his role as an objective participant in reconciling differences between the two parties to the conflict. Only under heated questioning did Carter admit, albeit hesitatingly, that Hamas was an anti-Jewish and terrorist group. The meeting ended on a cool note. TOM LANTOS was my special friend. I thought he had the talent to be secretary of state, but he was content to be chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. He was a champion of the cutting edge issues of the post-World War II, post-Communist world. He did his best to never let dictators feel content behind their criminal walls; everyday he sided with reformers and democrats in the streets marching on behalf of freedom and democracy; his values and views and identity drew him to Israel and its safety and security and future as a legitimate and successful part of the global community of nations. The writer, now a senior policy adviser to the Israel Policy Forum, headed AIPAC, 1980-1993, and was president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1997-2005.