Friday :: Feb 15, 2008

Tom Lantos

by Turkana

I've been meaning to say something about Tom Lantos. I met him when I was in junior high and he was working on Frank Church's 1976 presidential campaign. My parents helped lead Church's successful effort in the Oregon primary, and Lantos came to our house a few times. I still remember his wit, elegance, vivacity, and intelligence. He sat in our kitchen, discussing campaign strategy.

Oregon was thought to be key to Church's chances, because he had come late to the campaign. He had been busy leading Senate hearings on illegal activities by the FBI and CIA, which was an appropriate gauge of his priorities. Out of those hearings came the establishment of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Jimmy Carter was already winning early states, but the hope was that a win in Oregon could launch Church into the subsequent California primary, where Carter would be vulnerable. California's young governor, Jerry Brown, would run as a favorite son, but if Church could come in second, he might emerge as a palatable alternative for those wary of an inexperienced single-term governor from Georgia. We wore campaign buttons that prominently declared: Wait! (Until you've heard Frank Church!) It was clever and eye-catching, and often started conversations, from which people might, for the first time, learn of Church's candidacy. Lantos was fascinating and inspired, and it was only later that I was told a little of his background.

Tom Lantos was Holocaust survivor. He had lost most of his family. He had come to America, built a life, and gone into public service, eventually befriending a young U.S. Senator named Joe Biden. In 1972, Biden's wife and infant daughter were killed in an automobile accident, and he was so devastated that he considered withdrawing from public life. Lantos asked Biden to accompany him on a trip to Europe. Lantos took Biden on a tour of his own life. He took him to concentration camps where members of his own family had died. Biden understood. He returned to the United States, resumed his career, and picked up the pieces of his life. Years later, after working for both Church and Biden, Lantos launched his own political career. As a relatively new member of Congress, he founded the Congressional Human Rights Caucus.

Lantos often leaned towards hawkishness. A Holocaust survivor, who then saw his native Hungary crushed by the Soviet Union, he had a reflexive instinct to support what he considered to be defensive military operations. In the early 1980s, he initially supported Reagan's machinations in Central America. During those years, I spent some time in Lantos's district, and I knew many environmental and peace activists. One of the most impressive stories I heard was that a group of activists arranged a meeting with Lantos, carefully explained to him why Reagan's efforts in Central America had nothing to do with stopping Communism, and everything to do with imperialism, and succeeded in helping persuade Lantos to change his position. He was Congressman who actually listened, and who was capable of being convinced to change his stance on an important issue. Lantos became an opponent of Reagan's Central American policy, and began voting against funding the Contras.

I agreed with Tom Lantos on many political issues, and disagreed with him on many others. The world is diminished by his death.

Turkana :: 4:21 PM :: Comments (22) :: Digg It!