Lantos' Legacy: Justice Worth A Fight

Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., center, is handcuffed in his arrest during a demonstration outside the Sudanese Embassy as part of a protest against genocide in Sudan's embattled Darfur region, Friday, April 28, 2006 in Washington.
AP
This column was written by Brian Beutler.

Democratic Congressman Tom Lantos, who died on Monday, has been mourned by politicians on both sides of the aisle. With almost 27 years to the day of service behind him, Lantos was a Washington, D.C. veteran of rare standing -- one of the only members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus to have a friendly relationship with many conservative Republicans. The stately Holocaust survivor was a glad-hander with a bold tongue. He had views about social justice that endeared him to many liberals, and views about foreign policy that endeared him to many conservatives. From his seat -- both as ranking member of the House International Relations committee, and then, for the last 13 months, as chair of the rechristened House Foreign Affairs committee -- he spoke indefatigably of both. For that tirelessness, he has been called the conscience of the United States Congress.

Given his qualities -- his age, his history, his voice, his unabated idealism -- it's a compelling, if ultimately subjective, judgment. Still, that idealism drove his agenda as a political leader and was the reason he was so well positioned to heal the rift in his own party. In it, there is much for those he left behind to emulate, and much to caution against.

Lantos was driven by a belief that the United States government could serve as a force for good in the world. That drove him to spearhead some extremely productive, often pragmatic programs. He spent his last days alive trying to fix the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief -- one of several thousands of pieces of legislation that he's sponsored and co-sponsored over the years, a list that reads like the agenda of a bleeding-heart college activist.

But it is Lantos' support for the war in Iraq -- lasting quite a bit longer than many of his hawkish peers, long past the point at which it became apparent that the war was hopeless -- that showcases a fundamental tension in the congressman's ideology. His strident position (stronger than on any other issue, save, perhaps, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict) symbolized the conflict between his commitment to international institutions like the United Nations on the one hand, and his belief that military intervention was often an effective solution to worldwide humanitarian and security problems on the other.

The theme of Lantos's ideals clashing with each other run through many of his major battles. He seldom, for instance, surpassed an opportunity to decry the Iranian government or to call for multilateral sanctions against the regime. But he also tried -- as hard as any member of Congress -- to promote a new era of diplomatic engagement after a nearly 30-year hiatus, even seeking (ultimately unsuccessfully) to create a dialogue with his counterparts in Tehran, all in an effort to prevent hostilities from spilling over into violence.

But it was a similarly stubborn bout of idealism that led Lantos to vociferously back last year's measure about the Armenian genocide in Turkey. "One of the problems we have diplomatically globally is that we have lost our moral authority which we used to have in great abundance," Lantos said at the time. "People around the globe who are familiar with these events will appreciate the fact that the United States is speaking out against a historic injustice.

He supported the resolution despite the widely agreed-upon potential it had to limit the United States's peacemaking capacity while border tensions intensified between Turks and Kurds. For him, the symbolic expression of solidarity with long-dead victims of injustice surmounted any qualms about how such gestures might be perceived, and how those perceptions might prevent the U.S. from standing in the way of injustices to come.

But these paradoxes always seemed to feed into the sheen of authenticity that developed around him -- his humanitarianism wasn't pandering, and his militarism wasn't politically-minded. As such, Lantos was uniquely positioned between Democratic doves and hawks by being unlike other Democratic hawks who by and large sought to move the party to the center more broadly and, in contrast to the Joe Liebermans and Hillary Clintons of Congress, he did not eschew controversial positions for the sake of coalition building on other issues.

This distinguished him from both sets of his allies. He was pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, and pro-medical marijuana use in a much more clearly articulated way than his war allies in the center, many of whom speak in couched terms about any of these issues -- when they bother to speak at all. At the same time, though, he, as a Bay Area congressman, supported the war -- and voted for its reauthorization time and time again -- for reasons that distinguished him from liberals (like, perhaps, John Kerry in the Senate or John Murtha in the House) who were either cowed into their votes or voted as they did because, at the time, it was the politically easiest way forward. On the merits, he was wrong -- and being wrong for decent reasons doesn't undo damage. But it does help one maintain respectability, and therefore influence.

By the end of his life, he'd grown a bit more gun-shy -- not because any political winds favored such a shift (those winds blew past him years ago) but because he was able to accept certain realities. It was that shift that made him uniquely suited to heal the lingering rift between the party's doves and hawks. His committee successors -- among them Howard Berman of California and Gary Ackerman of New York -- do not share those qualities. Both of them are, like Lantos, humanitarians, and both of them, vis-à-vis Israel and elsewhere, are hawks. But they lack much of the elements -- his Holocaust experience and his age, but more importantly, his staunch activist streak -- that gave him unique leverage on the left and on the right.

Lacking a comparable figure to assume his mantle, liberals will have to learn from Lantos' example on their own: to maintain a belief that justice is worth a fight. But they should do so without a sense that real-time consequences can be ignored. Those consequences, after all, can create just the sorts of calamities that Lantos made a career of opposing.
Brian Beutler
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