Rep. Frank Wolf’s book offers refreshing look at fight for global human rights

Robert McCartney
Columnist October 19, 2011

It would be easy to dismiss cynically the new book by veteran Northern Virginia congressman Frank Wolf. Like many politicians’ volumes, it self-servingly portrays the author in the best way possible. It dodges important questions. Wolf didn’t even write it himself.

But I won’t scoff, because the book advances the unselfish, worthy cause of supporting victims of political and religious persecution overseas. People such as Chinese prison laborers. Sudanese Christians. Tibetan Buddhists.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

At a time when one struggles to find anything good to say about Congress, it’s refreshing to be able to applaud a representative who uses his position on behalf of millions of downtrodden who undeniably need a champion.

In addition, Wolf has done much more to stand up for human rights over the years than just put his name on a book, his first, at age 72. He has battled for international humanitarian causes since the mid-1980s, when he was shocked after visiting people suffering from famine in Ethiopia and dictatorship in Romania.

“What I saw and experienced in Ethiopia, and later in Romania, fully awakened me to the suffering of other people. And as both a U.S. congressman and a Christian, I knew I had to do something about it,” Wolf says at the end of the first chapter.

Wolf, a Republican, represents a district spanning seven counties including parts of Loudoun, Fairfax and Prince William. He has been in Congress since the 1980 election, when he campaigned on the need to stop night flights at National Airport.

The book, “Prisoner of Conscience,” was released Oct. 11. Wolf readily acknowledges that it was penned by a professional writer, Anne Morse, based on material that he dictated and provided to her in interviews.

Most of the book describes Wolf’s trips to many of the world’s most troubled places to see conditions firsthand. He has often gone on his own or in small groups, and usually despite official opposition, sometimes from the U.S. government.

Wolf says he was the first Western official inside a Soviet prison camp (1989) and the first to enter Tibet without official minders (1997). Lacking a visa to enter southern Sudan amid civil war, he says, “we went in sort of illegally.”

Wolf is proudest of his role in successful efforts to strip Romania of most-favored trade status, to create the independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and to persuade President George W. Bush to appoint a special envoy to Sudan. His biggest disappointment has been failing to stir up more concern about abuses by China’s Communist dictatorship.

Wolf has repeatedly allied with Democrats and sometimes gone against his own party on behalf of campaigns that he has found righteous. Although critical of Wolf on some fronts, many Democrats support his human rights work.

“Anybody that goes out and fights for humanitarian causes worldwide deserves credit for that. I don’t think any Democrat would begrudge him that,” said Loudoun Democratic Party Chairman Mike Turner.

I’ve got some issues with the book. Wolf criticizes foreign governments at length for torturing people and killing civilians but doesn’t address similar wrongdoing by the United States. There’s no mention of the Abu Ghraib scandal in Iraq, or of civilian casualties caused by U.S. military attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Wolf was evasive when I pressed him in a phone interview about the apparent contradiction. “They only gave me so many words, so I didn’t write about a lot of things,” he said.

I also found Wolf’s religiosity heavy-handed. More than half of the quotations that start each chapter are from the Bible, and the last sentence reads, “God is sovereign.”

The book offers a respectable defense, however.

“Some people criticize the faithful for getting involved in politics, but it’s important to remember that down through the centuries, people motivated by their faith have done many important things,” the book says. “Martin Luther King Jr. — motivated by his faith — brought about an end to segregation in our country. The Americans who fought child labor, opened orphanages, and worked for the abolition of slavery were mostly Christians.”

I was surprised and impressed by Wolf’s reason for writing the book.

“My concern was that the issue of human rights and religious freedom has sort of diminished, within both the executive branch and the legislative branch,” he said in the interview.

Congress “lost two giants” of the cause, he said, in congressmen Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) and Henry Hyde (R-Ill.). Lantos died in office in 2008; Hyde retired in January 2007 and died in November that year.

Human rights “just doesn’t seem to be on the front burner today as much as it was,” Wolf said.

I wasn’t expecting that. I hadn’t been aware that American public advocacy had weakened for those persecuted around the globe. Wolf’s value is precisely that he’s here to remind us.

mccartneyr@washpost.com

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