In Lantos, Congress Loses a Touchstone

Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA) has died. The 14-term legislator was chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, founding co-chairman of the Human Rights Caucus — and the only Holocaust survivor in Congress.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Congressman Tom Lantos, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee died early this morning this suburban Maryland. He was 80.

Lantos had announced just last month that he had been diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. He was the only Holocaust survivor ever elected to Congress. And that experience shaped everything Lantos did on Capitol Hill.

NPR's Brian Naylor has this remembrance.

BRIAN NAYLOR: Tom Lantos twice has kicked Nazi-forced labor camps at the age of 16 when Hitler's troops invaded his native Hungary. For a time like many Hungarian Jews, Lantos was under the protection of the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. But most of Lantos's family died in the Holocaust. His experiences with persecution made Lantos the congressman an eloquent advocate for human rights and a staunch defender of Israel. He was an early supporter of the war with Iraq, speaking in favor of the 2002 resolution authorizing the U.S. involvement.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Representative TOM LANTOS (Democrat, California): If the cost of war are great, the cost of inaction and appeasement are greater still.

NAYLOR: But by last year, Lantos had become disenchanted with the Bush administration's conduct of the war and the war itself. He spoke out at this September hearing with General David Petraeus.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Rep. LANTOS: The situation in Iraq cries out for a dramatic change of course. We need to get out of Iraq for that country's sake and for our own. It is time to go and to go now.

NAYLOR: California Democratic Congressman Howard Berman served alongside Lantos on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He says Lantos believed in a muscular foreign policy.

Representative HOWARD BERMAN (Democrat, California): He had a certain moral authority. He had a unique historical perspective and he had ability to articulate in really grand terms which swayed votes.

NAYLOR: Lantos, first elected in 1980, was co-founder of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus and made use of his position. He called Yahoo moral pigmies for allowing China to censor its Internet search engine. His committee approved a resolution declaring the killing of millions of Armenians in the early 20th century genocide that would infuriated Turkey and never made it to the House floor.

In a 2005 interview with NPR on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp, Lantos said the lessons of the Holocaust when in danger of being forgotten.

(Soundbite of archived interview)

Rep. LANTOS: Despite all of our hopes and aspirations, we have had genocide in Rwanda and we have had genocide in the killing fields of Cambodia. And as we speak, we have genocide in Darfur. So the problem of teaching about the need to treat each other as human beings - fellow human beings in a civilized society is desperate and global.

NAYLOR: Flags are at half staff across Washington. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Lantos devoted his life to shining a bright light on dark corners of the oppression. President Bush issued a statement calling Lantos a man of character and a champion of human rights. His wife of almost 58 years and that, said her husband's life was defined by courage optimism and unwavering dedication to his principles and to family members many of whom were at his bed side this morning.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.

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California Rep. Tom Lantos, 80, Dies

California Democratic Rep. Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor in Congress, has died, his spokeswoman said Monday. He was 80.

Lantos, who since 1980 represented California's 12th District, which includes San Mateo and a portion of southwest San Francisco, passed away at the Bethesda Naval Medical Center in suburban Maryland, spokeswoman Lynne Weil said.

The congressman served as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He disclosed last month that he had been diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus.

His wife, Annette Lantos said in a statement that her husband's life was "defined by courage, optimism, and unwavering dedication to his principles and to his family."

Lantos, who referred to himself as "an American by choice," was born to Jewish parents in Budapest, Hungary. He was 16 when Hitler's armies occupied Hungary in 1944.

His parents both died in the Holocaust, but Lantos himself twice escaped from forced labor camps. Eventually he came under the protection of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews.

In 1983, Lantos founded the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, a group that helped shape U.S. human rights policy. He was also a strong supporter of Israel and an early advocate of the U.S. war with Iraq. However, he became increasingly outspoken against the Bush administration's strategy and last year co-sponsored a House resolution criticizing the troop surge.

In 2004, Lantos led the first congressional delegation to Libya in more than 30 years, meeting personally with Moammar Gadhafi. He was instrumental in getting President Bush to lift sanctions against that country.

Last year, as Foreign Affairs chairman, Lantos defied administration opposition, moving a measure through his committee that would have recognized the World War I-era killings of Armenians as genocide, something U.S. ally Turkey strongly opposed.

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