- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 12, 2008


Of the many tendencies in American foreign policy — interventionist, isolationist, Jacksonian, Wilsonian — there was never much mistaking where Rep. Tom Lantos stood. The only Holocaust survivor in Congress, Mr. Lantos, a 14-term California Democrat and chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, spoke forcefully, even dramatically, on behalf of the world’s downtrodden, especially those under Communist regimes. Mr. Lantos’ death yesterday at age 80 robs America of a man of conscience who knew how to shine light into dark places, including at times when darkness, and a less vocal Mr. Lantos, might have served narrower definitions of the U.S. interest.

Born to a Jewish family in Budapest, Hungary, Mr. Lantos was sent to a Nazi labor camp at age 16. Most of his family perished. But he escaped and reached Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg’s safe house, emigrating to the United States in 1947. He earned a doctorate at Berkeley in 1953 before teaching economics and growing increasingly involved in public affairs, culminating in his election to the House in 1980.

Few could more readily be described as a “liberal hawk.” Americans for Democratic Action called Mr. Lantos a “hero” for his domestic positions, but his foreign-policy views during the Cold War would often be at home in the pages of Commentary or other “neoconservative” outfits. After the Cold War’s end, he vocally supported both the Persian Gulf War and the 2003 Iraq invasion, though by 2006 he had tired of Bush administration missteps and came to oppose the 2007 troop surge.

We were always especially fond of Mr. Lantos’ superior ability to put American society and American foreign policy into perspective. As he put it last month when he announced that he would not seek re-election on account of esophageal cancer: “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. I will never be able to express fully my profoundly felt gratitude to this great country.”

He also knew how to ruffle feathers. At age 78, Mr. Lantos could be found in handcuffs outside the Sudanese Embassy, arrested in an act of civil disobedience as he protested genocide in Darfur. He provoked Dutch indignation last year when he contended that the hubbub over Guantanamo these last few years outstrips anything European contemporaries had to say about Auschwitz at the time. He told Germans that former Chancellor Gerhard Schroder was a “political prostitute” for his ties to Russian energy moguls, adding that the association should offend prostitutes.

We didn’t always agree with Mr. Lantos, but there was never doubt where the conviction originated.

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