Monday, February 11, 2008

Fighting the good fight

California Democratic congressman Tom Lantos died early this morning in Bethesda, Md., at the age of 80. That sentence, journalistically factual as it is, can’t begin to express the experiences of a life well lived, a representative who stood for democratic principles — that’s “democratic” with a small D — and a man who, after midcourse corrections in his support of failed U.S. policies, continued to fight the good fight against injustices here and abroad.

That fight started early. Born in Hungary, Lantos was in the resistance movement that fought against the Nazi occupation of his native country, in March 1944. The only survivor of the Holocaust to ever serve in Congress, Lantos moved to the United States in 1947 and began a 30-year career that spanned academia, business and government.

He was first elected in 1980 and never lost a campaign, being re-elected to Congress 13 times. An ardent supporter of Israel, he opposed various U.S. initiatives in the Middle East, including U.S. military aid to Egypt, which Lantos, then the chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, argued wasn’t doing enough to stem the flow of weapons and money to Hamas, the Palestinian military organization that is now the government of the Palestinian Authority.

In his time in Congress, Lantos was a vocal champion of a variety of liberal causes, including health-care reform, a woman’s right to pursue elective abortion, aggressive defense of the environment, same-sex marriage rights and the use of marijuana for medical purposes. He also took a stand — literally — against the genocide in Darfur, joining a civil disobedience action with activists and others in Congress at the Sudanese Embassy in Washington to make his feelings known.

Some of his positions ran counter to his reputation as a liberal Democrat. Lantos supported the 1991 Persian Gulf War, as well as the 2003 invasion of Iraq — support that mirrored the majority of those in Congress at the time.

That started to change, emphatically, in 2006, when Lantos expressed vehement opposition to the U.S. troop escalation (“the surge”). During hearings of the House International Relations Committee, Lantos, at that time the ranking member, repeatedly praised the office of the Special Inspector of Iraq Reconstruction, which uncovered evidence of waste, fraud and abuse in the use of billions in American dollars meant to help secure and rebuild Iraq.

He became a reliable critic of the troop surge advocated by President Bush. In January 2007, after Bush announced his plan to increase troop levels by more than 21,000, Lantos was refreshingly matter-of-fact in his opposition. “Our efforts in Iraq are a mess, and throwing in more troops will not improve it."

And during the Bush administration’s much-ballyhooed dog-and-pony show in September 2007, when Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker testified on the war's progress in generally upbeat tones at a House hearing, Lantos didn’t stint in expressing his opposition to the U.S. war strategy.

"The Administration’s myopic policies in Iraq have created a fiasco. Is it any wonder that on the subject of Iraq, more and more Americans have little confidence in this Administration? We can not take any of this Administration's assertions on Iraq at face value anymore, and no amount of charts or statistics will improve its credibility. This is not a knock on you, General Petraeus, or on you, Ambassador Crocker. But the fact remains, gentlemen, that the Administration has sent you here today to convince the members of these two Committees and the Congress that victory is at hand. With all due respect to you … I don't buy it."

In January, facing a diagnosis of esophageal cancer, Lantos began his graceful exit with a farewell that was charitable and in keeping with his character as one of Congress’ true class acts. "It is only in the United States," he said, "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.”
Image credit: Top photo: Public domain

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