WASHINGTON, Oct. 22 (JTA) — In the midst of the Monica Lewinsky controversy, as President Clinton spoke in a closed room to a dozen Democratic lawmakers, congressmen skirted the headline-consuming issue and questioned the president on domestic policy.
Then Rep. Tom Lantos took the microphone and told the president he wanted to address a matter that his colleagues had ignored. Anticipating the worst, Clinton turned white, but the California Democrat turned the conversation to foreign affairs.
For the 21 years that Lantos has represented the San Francisco Bay Area in the House of Representatives, foreign relations has been his top priority. But for most of Lantos’ tenure — without a cold war or significant military objective — his comments have fallen on deaf ears.
Since Sept. 11, Lantos has found a more receptive audience.
“Sept. 11 is for many of my colleagues, particularly my younger colleagues, the first historic milestone in their political career,” Lantos, 73, told JTA. “I have many dates in my mind. I am probably more engaged in this situation than most people, but there is little doubt in my mind that I am more calm than most people in viewing this situation, because I have perspective,” he said.
In his first term as the ranking Democrat on the House’s International Relations Committee, Lantos is one of a few foreign policy experts in Congress. As a Holocaust survivor and a leading human rights activist, Lantos has gained the admiration and trust of many both in the Capitol and among world Jewry.
It was virtually impossible, in fact, to find someone willing to criticize Lantos.
“He’s the go-to guy for a lot of these issues,” said Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), who leads the Democrats in the House’s Middle East subcommittee. “He has a certainly unique base of first hand experience, envied by none and appreciated and respected by all.”
A week before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Lantos led the U.S. delegation in walking out of the U. N. World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa. His staunch opposition to comments denigrating Zionism as racism catapulted Lantos to the top of Jewish lists of friendly lawmakers.
“I saw the ugly face of naked anti-Semitism in such clear, stark, ugly tones, which I have not seen since the 1930s,” Lantos told the American Jewish Congress on Sunday. “It was the United Nations at its ugliest.”
Lantos’ tactics, which included frequent media interviews as well as backroom negotiations and strategy sessions, also won him the admiration of the White House, which consulted with him before deciding to pull the American delegation.
As the country bands together after the terror attacks, Lantos has taken upon himself the task of reminding the Bush administration of Israeli concerns regarding the coalition against terrorism. American Jewish leaders have remained relatively silent in recent weeks, fearful of angering a popular and focused Bush administration, and have looked to Lantos to take the lead.
“We don’t have the luxuries a congressman has,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “If a congressman has the courage and cares, it’s a lot easier for a congressman to speak out, because it’s his job.”
Lantos says he understands the delicacy of the Jewish community’s position. Now is a time for smart rhetoric; Lantos declares that the “age of frivolity in the United States is over.”
“The American Jewish community will clearly need to understand that it will take considerable maturity on the part of both them and Israel to deal on a day-by-day basis with the unfolding, new global war against international terrorism,” he said.
Lantos pauses often when he speaks, searching for the perfect words. He rarely mentions President Bush’s name without acknowledging his strong leadership in the last month and giving Bush his full support.
Lantos has taken to heart Bush’s words at a joint session of Congress last month: He expects the struggle against terrorism to go beyond Afghanistan and eventually target aggressors against Israel.
Still, he does not shy away from expressing his true feelings.
He has called it “hypocritical” that the United States condemns Israel’s policy of “targeted assassinations” while planning similar actions against Osama bin Laden and others linked to the Sept. 11 attacks.
Lantos has petitioned the White House to add Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad to the coalition’s list of targets, and he has expressed concern over Syria’s role in the U.S.-led coalition.
But it is Lantos’ bluntness and unorthodox matter of making his point that have raised eyebrows.
When three distinguished former envoys to Israel addressed the committee last month, Lantos bypassed an opening statement. Concerned that people were forgetting the victims of Palestinian violence, Lantos instead asked the audience and the ambassadors to rise for a moment of silence to a young mother killed in Israel earlier that week.
Last week, when William Burns, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, did not specifically tell the panel the difference between U.S. policy toward the Taliban and the Israeli policy of “targeted killing,” Lantos chastised the diplomat.
“When we ask questions, we know what we ask,” he continued. “We know you know the answers to what we ask, and we ask you to give us the respect of answering the questions and not dancing around the questions.”
Lantos acknowledges that his history — which he calls his greatest asset as a lawmaker — permeates his analysis of legislation and the way he questions every witness who appears before his committee.
“I am relying on my own lifetime of experiences, with respect to standing for principles, opposing appeasement and focusing on underlying, fundamental values,” he said.
As a teen-ager, he served as a leader in underground anti-Hitler and anti-Communist movements. Along with his future wife and thousands of others, he eventually was rescued from wartime Hungary by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who he says is one of his heroes.
A half century later, as his colleagues and the rest of the country see the horror of domestic terrorism, Lantos likens himself to someone who has lived through many love affairs and needs to counsel someone going through his first breakup.
“Every time the person who has had his first love affair go sour says ‘You can’t imagine the anguish I’m going through,’ it’s sort of useful to say, ‘Hundreds of millions of people have gone through that experience,’ ” Lantos said.