Steve Clemons
Talking Points Memo (Opinion)
February 12, 2008 - 7:19pm

House Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Tom Lantos (D-CA) died today after a battle with cancer.

Lantos was one of the Congress' last real characters of an age mostly gone in which eccentricity, a hybrid of vanity and humility, purpose, passion, and gentility packaged together was a winning path to leadership positions like the one he held for so long.

I enjoyed running into Lantos and his wife at parties around Washington. They loved the good food and wine that they could sample during the evening by jumping from one ritzy gathering to the next -- but although he loved the political scene in Washington and the schmoozing that went with it -- there was always an undercurrent of concern for the global underclass, for those discriminated against, for those with no ladder to get up to a level where decency and humaneness were not anomalies.

One of the most memorable of my encounters with the Lantos power couple was at the home of then French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte when Lantos was being honored for supporting a fellowship program for young Americans and Europeans focused on humanitarian causes. Lantos had helped hatch and sponsor a young set of Congressional interns called "Lantos Humanity in Action" fellows -- and one of these was my former research assistant and partner in the battle against John Bolton's confirmation, Mark Goldberg.

He loved these students and while DC's great (and the not-so-good) tried to lobby him this way and that at this and other parties, he spent a great deal of time just chatting with the students about their experiences in the field and in Congress.

I am coincidentally supposed to speak today to an assembled group of Lantos fellows about American foreign policy -- and in honor of Lantos -- I plan to make it an uplifting talk about the possibilities that come from serious policy work, advocacy, and writing. As a Holocaust survivor -- the only one in Congress -- Tom Lantos would have applauded the positive spin.

Lantos was not someone without controversies. Many, like myself, who are very committed to seeing a near-term resolution to the Israel-Palestine standoff had been frustrated with him in the past. Some of his detractors considered him to be one of AIPAC's chief allies (they would say "tools") in Congress.

There is no doubt that he was a committed advocate of Israel's interests as he saw them -- but recently, in several discussions that I was privileged to have with him -- Lantos had really shifted his rhetoric and his thinking somewhat away from an Israel-centric filter when looking at Middle East affairs and towards a position that supported robust American diplomacy in the region -- with Iran, with Israel-Palestine, and with the contingent parts of the Middle East puzzle in the broadest sense. I think many of Lantos' detractors have not given him credit he probably deserves for finally seeing the need to achieve a different kind of equilibrium between Israel and its neighbors than he had advocated in the past.

Unfortunately, Lantos' own realizations seem to have come too late in his political and real life for him to use his powerful Congressional perch to help lend legitimacy as a Holocaust-surviving House Member on any eventual deal that the US, Israel, Palestine and other Arab states cobble together by the end of 2008.

Congresswoman Jane Harman is another strong advocate of Israel's interests who also has made a shift and advocated a "no false choice" approach to Israel-Palestine negotiations and in America's broader engagement in the Middle East. She too has received some of the same criticism that Lantos has endured -- and yet, she has emerged as a compelling advocate of engagement and of diplomacy over military responses to Iran for example.

In the spectrum of political positioning, I would not place Tom Lantos in the same zone as either of my TPMCafe colleagues Daniel Levy or M.J. Rosenberg. Lantos would have been a tougher sell on any peace deal in the Middle East -- a skeptic perhaps -- but in my view still someone who in the end believed that an Arab-Israel settlement was in the vital national interest of the United States.

The Lantos shift deserves to be noted -- and should be made evident to those Democrats on the House Foreign Relations Committee who succeed Congressman Lantos. He was moving in the direction of negotiation, compromise, and hopefully -- peace.


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