Lantos, Tom

Lantos, Tom
Feb. 1, 1928-Feb. 11, 2008
American congressman

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"I'm only at the midpoint of my political career," the 79-year-old U.S. congressman Tom Lantos told Edward Epstein for the San Francisco Chronicle (January 1, 2007). A Democrat from California, Lantos - the only Holocaust survivor ever to hold a seat in the U.S. Congress - is currently serving his 14th term in the House of Representatives. He is a former professor of economics whose political career included only senior-advisory roles for various members of the U.S. Senate, until he became the only Democrat in the 1980 congressional elections to beat an incumbent Republican who was not facing indictment; he thus claimed the seat representing California's 11th Congressional District, encompassing southwest San Francisco County and northern San Mateo County. Lantos's first year in Congress was marked by open hostility from a Republican-dominated Senate after Ronald Reagan's landslide victory in the 1980 presidential race. Since then, the Hungarian-born Lantos has won respect for his strong advocacy of human rights and careful handling of foreign affairs. Lantos, the current chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, on which he has served for 26 years, has also furthered his presence on the world stage as the founder of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. Domestically, Lantos has backed liberal causes, supporting, for example, the rights of gays to marry and the use of marijuana for medical purposes, and he is strongly pro-choice. Although the congressman has recently received a wave a criticism for changing his stance on the Iraq war (he initially voted to authorize the war and now stands adamantly against it), Lantos is widely respected on both sides of the political fence and has continued to dominate general elections, receiving an average of about 75 percent of the vote. Lantos is "the last lion," Representative Adam Schiff, a fellow California Democrat, said to Epstein. "That's in the sense that he brings historical understanding, has earned immense respect, and has a level of gravitas second to none."

The only child of Pal Lantos, a banker, and Anna Lantos, a high-school English teacher, Thomas Peter Lantos was born on February 1, 1928 in Budapest, Hungary. He came from a Jewish family with a tradition of teaching: one of his uncles was a professor at the University of Budapest, and his grandmother was a former principal of a local gymnasium (high school). Although most of the Jews in Hungary, including Lantos's family, were assimilated and deeply patriotic, the end of World War I brought new restrictions upon Hungarian Jews, which included the passing of a law in 1923 that prohibited the percentage of Jews entering universities from exceeding the proportion of them in the overall Hungarian population. In 1933, when Lantos was five years old, Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, increasing the anti-Semitic sentiment in the region. A Nazi movement had begun within Hungary, and Lantos and his friends feared the Hungarian Nazis' emblem, the arrow cross, even more than the swastika. Walking to and from school, Lantos often saw fellow Jews being attacked and beaten. Lantos, a voracious reader even as a young boy, has said that one of his most vivid childhood memories is of buying his first newspaper in 1938, when he was 10 years old; walking home from school, he read the headline "Hitler Marches into Austria." In James Moll's Academy Award-winning 1998 documentary, The Last Days, in which Lantos was one of five Holocaust survivors featured, he recalled, as quoted on his official Web site, "I sensed that this moment, this event would have a tremendous impact on the lives of Hungarian Jews, my family and myself."

When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, in the summer of 1941, he demanded that both Hungary and Romania provide troops to fight alongside the Germans against the Soviets. Both countries responded eagerly, largely for the sake of acquiring territory in the Carpathian Basin (Hitler had divided the area known as Transylvania between Hungary and Romania in 1940; the area had been Hungarian prior to World War I, but Romania had taken all of it by war's end). Hungarian Jews, forbidden to serve in the army, were forced to do menial and dangerous work on the Soviet front, which included walking through minefields to clear the way for troops. All the young men in Lantos's extended family were made to perform such tasks, and all of them perished, as he recalled in The Last Days: Back in Hungary, many Jews were forced out of their jobs and businesses. On March 19, 1944, when Lantos was 16, German troops occupied Hungary. Afterward, it became mandatory for every Jew to wear a yellow Star of David.

While most Hungarian Jews outside Budapest were sent to the infamous concentration camp at Auschwitz, many Jewish young men in the capital city were dispatched to forced-labor camps. Lantos was sent to a camp in Szob, a small village about 40 miles north of Budapest. His parents were later deported from Budapest; his father survived the war, but Lantos never found out what happened to his mother. On one occasion Lantos escaped from the work camp but was caught and severely beaten. His second attempt succeeded: he made contact with the Hungarian Underground, led by Raoul Wallenberg, which provided escapees with food, shelter, medical supplies, and fake passports. Staying in what was called a safe house, Lantos found himself among more than 50 people who shared a room that would normally have been occupied by four or five. Lantos, whose blond hair and blue eyes allowed him to pass for an Aryan, was sent around Budapest in a military cadet's uniform to deliver bread, medicine, and other supplies to various safe houses. Despite his looks, he was continually at risk of being discovered by German or Hungarian Nazi officers, who often identified Jewish men by ordering them to lower their pants (only Jews were circumcised) and shot them to death on the spot - the fate of some of Lantos's friends. Lantos recounted in the documentary, "There was one occasion when the people in the protected house next to the one I was living in were ordered by a group of Nazi military or police - Hungarian or German - down to the Danube. They were machine-gunned or shot one by one and their bodies pushed into the river. It was as simple as that. The 'protected' house only provided protection when the good Lord and good fortune were with you."

On May 8, 1945, with the German surrender to Allied forces, World War II officially ended in Europe, and Hungary became a Communist satellite state of the Soviet Union. In the fall of 1946, Lantos began studies at the University of Budapest. He intended to study medicine, until, as he recalled to Jon Marmor for the University of Washington Alumni Magazine (September 1999, on-line), "they brought in the first corpse, and I was through with medical school." Then, in the summer of 1947, he was awarded a Hillel Foundation scholarship to study in the United States, based on an essay he had written about U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Recalling his arrival at the University of Washington, in Seattle, Lantos said to Marmor, "Here I was, coming out of the Holocaust, starvation, poverty, persecution, the worst horror of mankind, and I had landed in this bucolic setting. People were friendly and wonderful, there was all the food I could eat. I couldn't believe my eyes." He worked part-time jobs to support himself and to send chocolate and other items to friends and family in Hungary. He even persuaded officials at the university to hire him to teach Hungarian, which he began doing at 19. (At the time the school was one of only two universities in the nation to offer instruction in Hungarian.) Lantos received his bachelor's degree in 1949 and master's degree in 1950 from the University of Washington - both in economics. In June 1950 he married his childhood sweetheart and fellow Holocaust survivor Annette Tillemann (a cousin of the actresses Eva and Zsa Zsa Gabor). The couple moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, where Lantos pursued graduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Three years later he received his doctorate in economics and began teaching the subject at San Francisco State University, where he would remain for the next 30 years.

While teaching, Lantos chaired the Millbrae, California, board of education; developed his own public-television program on international affairs; served as an economic consultant to a number of businesses; and was actively involved in politics - his real love. In 1978 he took a year's leave of absence from San Francisco State to work as a foreign-policy adviser to Democratic senator Joseph Biden of Delaware. Then, on November 18, 1978, California's 11th Congressional District representative, the Democrat Leo Ryan, was killed at an airstrip in Guyana; he had gone there in search of former constituents who had moved to Jonestown - the site of the camp founded by the cult leader Jim Jones, who later died amidst the murders and suicides of more than 900 of his followers. In the 1980 race for the congressional seat, after running unopposed in the Democratic primary, the inexperienced Lantos defied odds to defeat the incumbent Republican, William Royer, who had won the special election after Ryan's death. Lantos won his seat with the lowest plurality of any member of Congress elected that year, winning 46 percent to Royer's 43 percent. He was sworn in on January 5, 1981.

One of Lantos's first acts as a congressman was to initiate legislation to make Raoul Wallenberg an honorary citizen of the United States. Once President Reagan signed the legislation, in October 1981, Wallenberg became only the second foreigner ever to receive the honor. (British prime minister Winston Churchill was the first.) In 1983 Lantos and the Republican John Edward Porter of Illinois founded the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. Over the years, the group has become the leading voice in Congress on human-rights issues. The group's activities have included speaking out for Christians seeking to practice their faith in Saudi Arabia and Sudan, fighting for Tibetans' right to retain their culture and religion, and advocating for other oppressed minorities worldwide. In 1987 the caucus became the first official U.S. entity to host the Dalai Lama, when the spiritual leader proposed a "Five Point Peace Plan" to Congress. During much of the 1980s, Lantos helped lead the Human Rights Caucus in expressing opposition to Communist regimes as well as other dictatorships. For example, in 1988 he called for economic sanctions against Iraq in response to that country's gassing of the Kurds. In 1990, as communism was facing its demise (Germany reunified in October 1990, and the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991), he became the first U.S. official since 1946 to visit Albania. He sponsored the first U.S. aid to the newly democratic countries of Eastern Europe and became a strong advocate for NATO expansion.

Long an outspoken opponent of political fraud and of the misuse of campaign funds, Lantos explained to Edvins Beitiks for the San Francisco Examiner (June 1, 2000), "I'm one of those in Congress who thinks campaign fund-raising is getting out of hand. I favor shortening campaigns, both presidential and congressional." In 1989 and 1990 he conducted hearings to investigate allegations of misconduct on the part of HUD (the Department of Housing and Urban Development) secretary Samuel Pierce. In 1991 Lantos became the center of controversy himself, during the buildup to the Persian Gulf War, which he strongly supported. That U.S.-led war followed Iraq's invasion of neighboring Kuwait; the Human Rights Caucus had hosted a number of hearings at which a Kuwaiti woman identified only as Nurse Nayirah brought to light the atrocities committed by Iraqi soldiers. Support in Congress for the invasion of Iraq increased as a result of her testimony. After the war it was found that Nurse Nayirah was in fact the 15-year-old daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States - one of the perpetrators of a hoax contrived by a public-relations firm on behalf of the Kuwaiti government to generate U.S. support for an invasion. It was also revealed that the firm, Hill & Knowlton, had provided free office space to the Congressional Human Rights Foundation, an affiliate of the Human Rights Caucus. Lantos had been reported as saying that Nayirah's last name must remain classified, or her family in Kuwait might face reprisals from Iraqi occupiers. With many believing that he was a participant in the hoax, Lantos continues to receive criticism for the episode.

After the 1992 general election, in which he won 69 percent of the vote, Lantos took the seat representing California's 12th Congressional District. (He had made the move from the 11th district due to redistricting that followed the U.S. census of 1990.) For much of the 1990s, Lantos continued to champion human-rights issues, with many of the conflicts on which he focused mirroring his own experiences in the Holocaust. That was particularly true of the war in the former Yugoslavia, waged from 1992 to 1995, in which Bosnian Serbs carried out a campaign of so-called ethnic cleansing against that country's ethnic Serbs and Croats (most of whom were Muslims). Lantos advocated a more active American role in Bosnia and in other parts of the former Yugoslavia. He sharply criticized China for its human-rights violations and opposed the normalizing of U.S. trade relations with China. Over the years he had also been quick to criticize what he perceived as anti-Semitic behavior. For example, in 1996, after the controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan made a number of anti-Semitic remarks and met with the leaders of Libya, Iran, and Iraq in what the press called a "thugfest tour," Lantos helped introduce a resolution to censure Farrakhan. Lantos's action brought disapproval from members of the Congressional Black Caucus, but he did not retreat from his position.

At the outset of the new millennium, Lantos continued supporting sanctions against Iraq, which had been imposed in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War; Democrats in the House remained divided over the issue, with many arguing that sanctions were contributing unduly to poverty and disease in Iraq. Lantos and fellow pro-sanction representatives, however, maintained that Iraq's leader, Saddam Hussein, was withholding available food and medicine as a means of garnering sympathy and ending sanctions. Lantos also cited Iraq's anti-Jewish, anti-Israel, and anti-Western policies as a justification for sanctions. His stance on China remained firm: he sponsored a resolution in September 2000 urging (unsuccessfully) that Beijing not be selected as the site of the 2008 Olympics. Lantos came out against U.S. participation in the United Nations conference on racism in Durban, South Africa, arguing that it would perpetuate anti-Semitism. As quoted in the Almanac of American Politics, Lantos called the conference "another forum for Israel-bashing and for the most extreme form of antisemitism to gain global notoriety." In particular, he felt that the conference had strayed away from its ostensible purpose - that of addressing past and present racial discrimination on a global level—by singling out Israel for its alleged persecution of the Palestinians in the occupied regions. In April 2002 Lantos and Majority Whip Tom DeLay co-sponsored a resolution backing Israel's military response to Palestinian suicide attacks on Israeli civilians; the measure passed by a vote of 352-21 in May of that year. Lantos also worked with the former House International Relations Committee chairman, Henry Hyde, to fight AIDS around the world, directing $1.3 billion toward that purpose in December 2001 and, in May 2003, $3 billion of the $15 billion pledged by President George W. Bush. Lantos's other acts included a meeting with Muammar Al-Qaddafi in January 2004, after which Lantos announced that the Libyan leader had renounced all forms of mass destruction. Lantos was also among the first members of Congress to visit the country since the 1960s. In October 2004 he persuaded Congress to pass a bill that suspended aid to Ethiopia and Eritrea until they settled their border dispute. Although Eritrea had gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993, after a 30-year guerrilla war, no border was agreed upon, and a full-scale war between the two countries took place from 1998 to 2000, claiming tens of thousands of lives. Even after a peace agreement was reached, in 2000, the two countries remained in conflict.

On April 28, 2006 Lantos and four other members of Congress were arrested after blocking the entrance to the Sudanese Embassy in Washington, D.C. Their action was a protest against the Sudanese government's sponsorship of genocide against non-Arab citizens in the region of Darfur, where an estimated 200,000 to 450,000 people have perished. Lantos said, as quoted by Jim Doyle in the San Francisco Chronicle (April 28, 2006), "We have been calling on the civilized world to stand up and to say, 'Enough.' The slaughter of the people of Darfur must end." The Bush administration denounced a trip that Lantos made with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, to Syria, in an attempt to improve relations with the country. Since 2003 U.S.-Syrian relations have been marked by open hostility, especially regarding U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. The U.S., for its part, has accused Syria of allowing terrorists safe passage into neighboring Iraq and has criticized its involvement in Lebanese politics. Many political observers called the Pelosi-Lantos visit ill-timed, arguing that it allowed Syria to exploit the lack of unified resolve in Washington over the issue of Iraq. As quoted in a transcript from Lou Dobbs Tonight (April 12, 2007), Lantos called the administration's intense criticism of the visit "particularly pathetic," noting that Republican colleagues had joined Lantos and Pelosi on their Damascus trip and adding: "So if this is not hypocrisy, I don't know what is." In addition, Lantos has received a firestorm of criticism from many of his House peers for doing an about-face on the current war in Iraq, four years after he voted to authorize the war. He claimed that his initial support for the war was based on the intelligence available at the time, which indicated that Saddam Hussein had obtained weapons of mass destruction. After learning that the intelligence was false, he changed his stance. About his current stance, Lantos explained to Edward Carpenter for the San Francisco Examiner (March 19, 2007), "The dream of erecting a prosperous and peaceful democracy in Iraq won't happen in my lifetime or yours." He added, "You can't unscramble an omelet." Lantos, along with House Speaker Pelosi and other members of Congress, drafted a bill that would have funded overseas military operations ($124 billion in emergency spending and an estimated $100 billion to continue the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), with the proviso that the president would begin withdrawing troops from Iraq as early as July 2007. Bush vetoed the bill. Lantos has denounced that veto and continues to advocate withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

Lantos has a head of white hair that "belies a mind filled with intellectual firecrackers," as described by Edvins Beitiks, and he speaks with what Edward Epstein called "a charmingly accented English that younger generations on Capitol Hill swear sounds like Count von Count on Sesame Street." He maintains his youthful vigor by swimming each morning. Lantos and his wife have two grown daughters, Annette and Katrina, and 17 grandchildren. The congressman speaks five languages and dedicates six hours daily to reading books and magazines. "Really the only reason I wouldn't enjoy dropping dead tomorrow is because there's still so many books I want to read," Lantos told Janine Zacharia for the Jewish Bulletin News (April 20, 2001). A secular Jew, Lantos is nonetheless deeply proud of his heritage; his office is filled with lithographs of scenes from Jerusalem and colorful Israeli-made pottery. Since January 2007 Lantos has been hard at work in his new role as chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. His main areas of focus include the ongoing Darfur conflict, the war on terrorism, and the nation's policy on combating AIDS in Africa. Lantos said to Epstein: "In a sense my whole life has been a preparation for this job."

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