Lantos Remembered for Ideals

Posted February 11, 2008 at 6:37pm

Members quickly made plans Monday to hold a memorial in the Capitol for Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), a long-standing Member who was the only Holocaust survivor ever to serve in Congress.

Lantos died Monday morning at Bethesda Naval Medical Center, just over a month after he announced that he had esophageal cancer and would retire at the end of his term. He turned 80 on Feb. 1.

Scores of Republicans and Democrats praised Lantos as a man who stood up for his ideals and reached across party lines to fight for international human rights. He was an intellectual, they said, reading for hours a day. He also was dedicated, fighting constantly for what he thought was right.

They will pay him tribute at a memorial service on Thursday at 10 a.m. in Statuary Hall, according to the office of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Holding a memorial service in the Capitol is somewhat rare — the last two times were for Rep. Robert Matsui in January 2005 and for Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald last May.

But Lantos was anything but ordinary. Born in Hungary, he escaped from labor camps twice as a teenager and fought in the underground against the Nazis. He lost his family in the Holocaust but later married his childhood sweetheart, Annette, who also survived by going into hiding.

As a Congressman, Lantos was dedicated and congenial, earning the respect of both his Democratic and Republican colleagues.

“He was very old world and in a way courtly,” said fellow California Democrat Rep. Zoe Lofgren. “He was someone who was not what you would think of as an informal person at all and yet enormously gracious.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wrote in a statement that “a cold wind swept through the Capitol this morning when we heard that Tom had died.” Differences on domestic issues were put aside to push forward international issues like supporting Israel and securing funding to fight AIDS, he said.

“Tom Lantos accomplished something few people do in life: he committed himself to an ideal, then followed through on it until the end,” McConnell wrote. “He gave it everything he had. And America admired him for it.”

Family also was central to Lantos’ life, said Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.), who is chairman of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health. He had a “soft side” for his 17 grandchildren, Payne said, and his wife was never very far away, attending numerous committee hearings.

“When you got him, you got the package of Mrs. Lantos. You didn’t see one without the other,” he said. “She was as expected to be present in many instances as he was.”

Lantos was elected to Congress in 1980 from a district that runs from San Francisco to San Mateo, beating a Republican incumbent.

He won every election after 1982 with relative ease, reaching the pinnacle of his Congressional aspirations — chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, only last year.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who co-chaired the Congressional Human Rights Caucus with Lantos, who founded the group, called him a “giant” for human rights.

Lantos consistently fought for those rights throughout his tenure, whether it involved Romania, China or the Soviet Union, Wolf said.

And he didn’t shy away from breaking convention, becoming one of the first Congressmen since the 1960s to visit Libya, in 2004, and getting arrested in 2006 during a protest at the Embassy of Sudan in Washington, D.C.

“He cared all the time. He cared for the right reasons too. I think he understood,” Wolf said. “Having to face what he faced as a young man, he understood not only from an intellectual point of view but from personal experience.”

Almost 30 years after Lantos began that fight, it looks like he will be replaced by former state Sen. Jackie Speier — a well-known local politician who has a distinctive connection to the beginning of Lantos’ career.

In 1978, Speier was a staffer for then-Rep. Leo Ryan (D-Calif.) and accompanied him to Guyana in November of that year on a mission to investigate possible human rights abuses at the Peoples Temple compound in Jonestown run by the Rev. Jim Jones. Some of Jones’ followers were Ryan’s constituents.

Ryan was killed when Jones’ followers opened fire on Ryan, Speier and others in the fact-finding delegation as they were boarding a plane to head back to the United States. Speier was shot five times but survived despite lying on the airport tarmac for 22 hours while waiting for medical help.

She subsequently ran and lost the special election to replace Ryan in Congress — but Lantos would win that district two years later from the Republican that took the seat. Speier later ran won a seat on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors.

Speier is thus well-known in the solidly Democratic 12th district, having represented many of Lantos’ constituents for years both as a state Senator and as a former San Mateo County supervisor.

No high-profile Democrat other than Speier had announced for Lantos’ seat prior to the Congressman’s death over the weekend, and Democratic sources predict she will have a clear path to Congress in the special election, which has yet to be scheduled.

“Congressman Tom Lantos was an inspiration to anyone who ever dreamed of a better life, strove to overcome adversity or refused to quit against overwhelming odds,” Speier said Monday in a statement.

With Speier’s name identification and the strong Democratic bent of the district, it’s possible the former state Senator could win the special open primary with more than 50 percent of the vote and avoid a runoff.

Under California law, the top vote-getter of each political party with a candidate in the special open primary advances to a runoff unless the candidate with the most votes surpasses 50 percent.

Activist Jason Lee Jones is the only other Democrat in the race.

The Californian’s death will also necessitate the selection of a new chairman on the Foreign Affairs Committee, the second time in the 110th Congress a gavel has changed hands because of a mid-session death. In May, Rep. Robert Brady (D-Pa.) was elevated to the Democrats’ top post on the House Administration panel, succeeding Millender-McDonald.

Democratic sources said fellow Californian Rep. Howard Berman (D), who has served on the panel since his 1982 election and was ranked behind only Lantos in seniority, is expected to ascend to the chairmanship.

“Mr. Berman will become chairman of Foreign Affairs early next month,” said Chief of Staff Gene Smith, who said the arrangement has the approval of Democratic leadership.

A spokesman for Pelosi declined to comment on the chairmanship.

The Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, which will select the next chairman, who must then be ratified by the full Democratic Caucus, had yet to schedule a meeting date as of Monday afternoon, according to House aides.

Berman recalled his California colleague as “a true giant in advancing the cause of human rights around the world.

“Tom was a close friend, and I will miss him very much,” Berman added.

Although the Steering Committee considers a variety of factors in selecting committee chairmen, seniority plays a significant role in those deliberations.

Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), who joined the committee in 1985 and is the panel’s third-ranking Democrat behind Berman, will not challenge Berman for the gavel.

“Congressman Berman will be the next chairman, and he’ll make a great chairman,” said Ackerman spokesman Jordan Goldes.

Ackerman, who chairs the Middle East and South Asia subcommittee, said in a statement: “Tom was tough. He was passionate and he was dignified. He was a lion in a town too full of sheep. The nation and the Congress have lost a great public servant today.”