Sunday, February 17, 2008

Congressman Tom Lantos, champion of human rights and human decency, dies at 80

This week saw the passing of one of the most admirable members of the US Congress, the Hungarian-Jewish-American Representative Tom Lantos. Selections from his Associated Press obituary are below. Lantos survived the Nazi Holocaust, which murdered most of his family, and he
"saw his survival from the camps in Europe as a reason to devote his life to help victims of discrimination, oppression and persecution everywhere," said Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, a close friend. "He was outspoken in whatever he did."
Among other things, the role that Lantos played in his political career helps to illustrate why US foreign policy has never actually been conducted according to the model favored by self-styled "realists"--that is, one in which international relations are exclusively controlled and managed by foreign-policy elites guided by a narrowly conceived, politically unrealistic, and morally myopic version of realpolitik, safely insulated from the pressures of democratic politics ... and why, on balance, this is a good thing.

=> One of Lantos's accomplishments was founding the Congressional Human Rights Caucus in 1983. The Human Rights Leadership Coalition, an alliance of 12 major international human-rights groups, paid an eloquent tribute to Lantos that is worth reading in full (HERE). Some highlights:
The human rights community mourns the loss of Tom Lantos, an extraordinary human rights leader and unwavering advocate for fundamental rights. As the Executive Directors of the twelve organizations that form the Human Rights Leadership Coalition, we are deeply grateful for Lantos’ countless contributions to justice and human rights around the world that rendered him a unique and steadfast ally to the human rights community. His remarkable and sustained efforts on behalf of vulnerable and otherwise voiceless people gave deep meaning to his almost three decades of public service in Washington, DC.

The only Holocaust survivor to be elected to Congress, Lantos had a unique voice and passion to make a difference in the lives of others. [....]

In 1983, Congressman Lantos co-founded the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, to ensure every Member of Congress had the opportunity to speak out on behalf of those whose voices were quelled and to shed a light in the face of darkness. Among the first acts was to adopt the cases of individual Soviet Jews, Pentecostals and dissidents targeted by the Soviet regime. Many were released.

Through the Caucus, Lantos brought major concerns to the Congress, such as violence against women, killings in Darfur and the Congo, and curbing the HIV/AIDS epidemic. He also advocated for internet company accountability for complicity in censorship and political persecution in China. Congressman Lantos shed a spotlight on lesser known causes, first bringing to light abuses against Tibetans, the Kurds, the Burmese, Uighurs, and indigenous people on every continent. He was a strong advocate against anti-Semitism and persecution of religious minorities, and also of abuses against gays and lesbians. During the dark periods of the dirty wars in Latin America, Lantos called for accountability and insisted on the declassification of documents revealing US involvement in abuses.

During his final public remarks at the United Nations on January 28, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, recalling his participation in the Durban World Conference against Racism and Related Intolerance [which, to the dismay of Lantos and others like him, had perversely turned into an outright festival of bigotry and anti-semitism --JW] and calling for renewed efforts to combat anti-Semitism and intolerance in any form, Tom Lantos urged the assembled world leaders to: “... let us rededicate ourselves to stopping current tragedies such as the genocide in Darfur... and to preventing such inhuman cruelty in the future. We must remember that the veneer of civilization is paper thin. We are its guardians and we can never rest...” [....]
=> Lest all this make Lantos sound too narrow in his interests and too saintly in his temperament, here are some of his other political positions:
Lantos was a strong supporter of the Iraq War from the start, but from 2006 onward made increasingly critical statements about the conduct of the war, and as the chairman of the United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs he held 20 oversight hearings on the war in 2007.

Lantos was a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and repeatedly called for reforms to the nation's health-care system, reduction of the national budget deficit and the national debt, repeal of the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001, and has opposed Social Security privatization efforts. He supported same-sex marriage rights and marijuana for medical use, was a strong proponent of gun control and was adamantly pro-choice.

Lantos was a well-known advocate on behalf of the environment, receiving consistently high ratings from the League of Conservation Voters and other environmental organizations for his legislative record. His long-standing efforts to protect open space brought thousands of acres under the protection of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, including Mori Point, Sweeney Ridge and — most recently — Rancho Corral de Tierra, which will keep its watersheds and delicate habitats free from development permanently. In 2005 he opposed an effort to expand public use of the Farallon Islands, a protected wildlife haven.

Lantos consistently championed local transportation projects that need federal funds and, given his seniority in Congress, proved successful at delivering this support. [....]

Lantos spoke out strongly against waste, fraud and abuse in the multi-billion dollar U.S. reconstruction program in Iraq, and has warned that the U.S. may lose Afghanistan to the Taliban if the Bush Administration fails to take decisive action to halt the current decline in political stability there.

Lantos, then the ranking Democrat on the International Relations Committee, tried to disrupt U.S. military aid to Egypt. Lantos argued that the Egyptian military had made insufficient efforts to stop the flow of money and weapons across the Egyptian border to Hamas in Gaza, and had not contributed troops to internationally-supported peacekeeping efforts in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Lantos was a strong advocate of Israel[....]

During a 1996 Congressional inquiry into the "Filegate" scandal, Rep. Lantos told witness Craig Livingstone that "with an infinitely more distinguished public record than yours, Admiral Boorda committed suicide when he may have committed a minor mistake." Boorda, the Chief of Naval Operations, had recently taken his own life after his right to wear Combat V decorations had been questioned. Lantos was criticized by some (including fellow Congressman Joe Scarborough) who interpreted the remark as a suggestion that Livingstone too should kill himself. [....]

In June 2007, Lantos called former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder a "political prostitute" at the dedication ceremony of the Victims of Communism Memorial, which caused a political backlash from the German government. Lantos was referring to Schröder's ties to energy business in Russia, and remarked that this appellation would offend prostitutes. [....]

In October 2007, Dutch parliament members said Lantos insulted them while discussing the War on Terrorism by stating that the Netherlands had to help the United States, because they liberated them in the Second World War, while adding that the upheaval over Guantanamo in Europe was bigger than over Auschwitz at the time. [Etc.]
And here is Lantos in March 2007:
We are far from having exhausted all diplomatic and economic options for stopping Tehran’s headlong pursuit of nuclear weapons. Talk of military intervention is unwise and unsupported by Congress and the American people.

I am very pleased that the Administration has recently reversed course, and will join Iran and Syria for discussions on stability in Iraq. Perhaps this diplomatic contact with Iran might pave the way for a broader dialogue with Tehran designed to bridge the gulf between our two nations.

But diplomacy with Iran does not stand a chance unless it is backed by strong international sanctions against the regime in Tehran. Iran’s theocracy must understand that it cannot pursue a nuclear weapons program without sacrificing the political and economic future of the Iranian people.

That is why this week I am introducing the Iran Counter-Proliferation Act of 2007. The objective of my legislation is two-fold: To prevent Iran from securing nuclear arms and the means to produce them. And to ensure that we achieve this goal in a peaceful manner. [....]

The corporate barons running giant oil companies – who have cravenly turned a blind eye to Iran’s development of nuclear weapons – have come to assume that the Iran Sanctions Act will never be implemented. This charade will now come to a long overdue end. [....]

My legislation also calls on the President to declare the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist group. The Revolutionary Guard and its Quds Force train terrorists throughout the Middle East, including in Iraq and in Lebanon. The Revolutionary Guard, which is a major base of support for Ahmadinejad, owns huge economic enterprises in Iran. Foreign banks will think twice about dealing with these enterprises once the Guard is declared a terrorist organization.

All of these actions will deprive Iran of the funds that currently support and sustain its nuclear program.

I will also join with our colleague Barney Frank, the Chairman of the Financial Services Committee, in introducing legislation to limit pension fund investment in foreign companies that pour money into Iran’s energy industry. A variety of means will be used for this purpose from “name and shame” for private funds to mandating divestment for public funds. [....]

The reason for this all-encompassing approach -- and for its urgency -- is that we have so little time. Iran is forging ahead with its nuclear program, in blatant defiance of the unanimous will of the UN Security Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency. Before it is too late, we must try to persuade others to join us in increasing the diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran and, where necessary, we must give them incentives to do so. [....]

=>A few more random items that are also worth reading: Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány's tribute to Lantos begins with this nice formulation: "Tom Lantos was a loyal son to both his adopted home, the United States, and his native country, Hungary, even though the latter was, at one time, so painfully and tragically disloyal to him." I discovered from my friend Ezter Hargittai's blog that Lantos is one of the Hungarian Holocaust survivors featured in an Oscar-winning historical documentary by Steven Spielberg, "The Last Days"--which I've never seen, but which Ezster has convinced me I probably should. And check out my cousin Hal Plotkin's favorite Tom Lantos story--about the radio interview Hal did with Lantos during Lantos's first run for Congress in 1980--along with a more recent story about Lantos vs. Yahoo from November 2007.

=> A closing note: The painful sense of loss I felt when I heard about Tom Lantos's death--not a personal loss, of course, but a moral and political loss for the US and for the world--reminded me of my reaction in 2004 to the shockingly unexpected death of another combative, outspoken, politically courageous, deeply humane, and outstandingly admirable left-liberal Jewish-American political figure, Sen. Paul Wellstone. That's not to say that the two of them agreed on every issue. To take one big example, Lantos supported the 2003 Iraq war (as I did), while Wellstone opposed it. But in both cases their position was reasoned and principled--and based on pretty much the same core principles of democratic and humanitarian practical idealism. I want to take this opportunity to salute them both.

--Jeff Weintraub

P.S. Not everyone liked Lantos, to be sure. In case you're interested in a different perspective, HERE is an all-out assault on Lantos as a "champion warmonger," "sickening hypocrite," and chief spokesman of "the Dick Cheney wing of the Democratic Party." This particular example comes from the right-wing "libertarian" "anti-war" nut-job Justin Raimundo, but a lot of the basic themes, sometimes minus the intemperate languate, can also be found in criticisms of Lantos from allegedly "progressive" sources over the years.
New York Times (AP)
February 11, 2008
Representative Tom Lantos Dies at 80

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Rep. Tom Lantos, who escaped the Nazis and grew up to become a forceful voice for human rights all over the world, has died. He was 80.

The California Democrat, the only Holocaust survivor to serve in Congress, died early Monday at the Bethesda Naval Medical Center in Maryland, said his spokeswoman, Lynne Weil. He disclosed last month that he had cancer of the esophagus.

At his side were his wife of nearly six decades, Annette, his two daughters and many of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Annette Lantos said in a statement that her husband's life was "defined by courage, optimism, and unwavering dedication to his principles and to his family."

Lantos, who chaired the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was serving his 14th term in Congress. He had said he would not seek re-election in his Northern California district, which takes in the southwest portion of San Francisco and suburbs to the south. [....]

Lantos assumed his committee chairmanship when Democrats retook control of Congress. He said at the time that in a sense his whole life had been a preparation for the job -- and it was.

Lantos, who called himself "an American by choice," was born to Jewish parents in Budapest, Hungary [who named him Lantos Tamás Péter --JW], and was 16 when Adolf Hitler occupied Hungary in 1944. He survived by escaping twice from a forced labor camp and coming under the protection of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who used his official status to save thousands of Hungarian Jews.

Lantos' mother and much of his family perished in the Holocaust.

That background gave Lantos a unique moral authority that he used to speak out on foreign policy issues, sometimes courting controversy. He advocated for human rights in Sudan, Myanmar and elsewhere, and in 2006 was one of five members of Congress arrested outside the Sudanese Embassy protesting what the Bush administration describes as genocide in Darfur.

Lantos' end came faster than his many friends and admirers had expected. [....]

Tributes poured in from Jewish groups worldwide, as well as from the Israeli foreign ministry, the prime minister of Hungary, the governor of California and the mayor of New York City.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Lantos a friend and longtime supporter of the United Nations, whose "immeasurable efforts in attuning the consciousness and the conscience of people to the dangers of intolerance and human rights violations will long be remembered," said U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas.

Lantos was a frequent visitor to Hungary, where he was widely recognized for advocating for the rights of the millions of ethnic Hungarians in neighboring countries, especially Romania and Slovakia, whose cultural identity was a common target of those countries' communist regimes.

Lantos was elected to the House in 1980. He founded the Congressional Human Rights Caucus in 1983. In early 2004 he led the first congressional delegation to Libya in more than 30 years, met personally with Moammar Gadhafi and urged the administration to show "good faith" to the North African leader in his pledge to abandon his nuclear weapons programs. Later that year, Bush lifted sanctions against Libya.

In October 2007, as Foreign Affairs chairman, Lantos defied administration opposition by moving through his committee a measure that would have recognized the World War I-era killings of Armenians as a genocide, something strongly opposed by Turkey. The bill has not passed the House.

"(Lantos) saw his survival from the camps in Europe as a reason to devote his life to help victims of discrimination, oppression and persecution everywhere," said Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, a close friend. "He was outspoken in whatever he did."

"It is only in the United States that a penniless survivor of the Holocaust and a fighter in the anti-Nazi underground could have received an education, raised a family and had the privilege of serving the last three decades of his life as a member of Congress," Lantos said upon announcing his retirement last month.

Lantos and his wife had two daughters, Annette and Katrina, who between them produced 18 grandchildren. One grandchild died young. According to Lantos, his daughters fulfilled their promise to produce very large families because his and his wife's families had perished in the Holocaust.