Lantos Praised as 'Champion of Our Common Humanity'

Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) was elected in 1980 and served as chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Lantos was a survivor of the holocaust and was known as a champion of human rights. He died of cancer on Feb. 11, 2008.
By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 15, 2008

Congressional colleagues, family members and compatriots in his many causes bid the late Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) a hero's farewell yesterday, lauding him, in the words of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, as "a champion of our common humanity."

The Hungarian-born Lantos, who died of cancer Monday at age 80, was the only Holocaust survivor ever to serve in Congress. His youth as a resistance fighter in Nazi-occupied Budapest, where he lost most of his family, lent authority to his pursuit of humanitarian causes and his support for U.S. military intervention in the name of democracy.

Lantos's moral heft and stern demeanor often left colleagues reluctant to challenge him, even when he became one of the strongest Democratic supporters of President Bush's decision to invade Iraq.

His 14 terms in the House and lifelong advocacy drew an array of mourners to a memorial service in the Capitol's Statuary Hall. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), holding back tears, saluted her fellow Californian's devotion to "values-based foreign policy." Rock star Bono recalled his last meeting with the ailing Lantos last winter, when he spoke eloquently of his love for his wife, Annette, a fellow Holocaust survivor and companion since their youth.

"Whether I win in this fight for my life is not important. This love we have cannot be defeated," the singer said Lantos told him. Bono ended his tribute by singing "All You Need is Love," which he credited to "that great Hungarian folk singer, Jan Von Lennon."

Author and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, another Holocaust survivor who last saw Lantos during a tribute to the Dalai Lama last summer, spoke directly to him. "The entire planet Earth has become your battlefield," he said. "When victims of society, when prisoners of destiny felt defenseless, abandoned, neglected, humiliated and desperate, they had, in you, a defender."

Almost weeping, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, "I truly feel that I have lost an irreplaceable mentor."

Tenacious, opinionated and fiercely devoted to his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, Lantos was co-chairman and founder of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. His work in Congress culminated in the chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, awarded to him last year by Pelosi. It was a position he had coveted: At a 75th birthday party thrown by his family in Budapest, his daughter recalled them singing "If I Were the Chairman" to the tune of "If I Were a Rich Man" from the musical "Fiddler on the Roof."

Lantos used his bully pulpit on the committee to draw attention to crises in Burma, Tibet and Darfur, and to express support for Israel. His death drew sympathy from around the world, even from leaders with whom he disagreed. In its letter, North Korea used the words "with authority" to signal that its condolences came directly from leader Kim Jong Il.

Wiesel, the penultimate speaker yesterday morning, said Lantos's life was an effort to answer the question: "What does one do with memory?"

"Memory must be part of whatever we do, and just as hope can become someone else's nightmare, memory too could become a curse to some and a blessing to others. It all depends on what you do with it," Wiesel told the rapt audience. "The only response to the tragedy is simply to remember it for the sake of our children, children everywhere, because . . . it must never happen again anywhere, to anyone.

"And that was of course the meaning of your endeavors, the goal of your battles. So my dear friend, farewell. . . . Your example will be followed not only by your colleagues and your friends and allies . . . but by men and women who never met you. Oh, yes, we will continue. But it won't be the same."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company