Democratic Congressman Tom Lantos, who died on Monday, has been mourned by politicians on both sides of the aisle. With almost 27 years to the day of service behind him, Lantos was a
Given his qualities--his age, his history, his voice, his unabated idealism--it's a compelling, if ultimately subjective, judgment. Still, that idealism drove his agenda as a political leader and was the reason he was so well positioned to heal the rift in his own party. In it, there is much for those he left behind to emulate, and much to caution against.
Lantos was driven by a belief that the
But it is Lantos' support for the war in
The theme of Lantos's ideals clashing with each other run through many of his major battles. He seldom, for instance, surpassed an opportunity to decry the Iranian government or to call for multilateral sanctions against the regime. But he also tried--as hard as any member of Congress--to promote a new era of diplomatic engagement after a nearly 30-year hiatus, even seeking (ultimately unsuccessfully) to create a dialogue with his counterparts in
But it was a similarly stubborn bout of idealism that led Lantos to vociferously back last year's measure about the Armenian genocide in
He supported the resolution despite the widely agreed-upon potential it had to limit the
This distinguished him from both sets of his allies. He was pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, and pro-medical marijuana use in a much more clearly articulated way than his war allies in the center, many of whom speak in couched terms about any of these issues--when they bother to speak at all. At the same time, though, he, as a Bay Area congressman, supported the war--and voted for its reauthorization time and time again--for reasons that distinguished him from liberals (like, perhaps, John Kerry in the Senate or John Murtha in the House) who were either cowed into their votes or voted as they did because, at the time, it was the politically easiest way forward. On the merits, he was wrong--and being wrong for decent reasons doesn't undo damage. But it does help one maintain respectability, and therefore influence.
By the end of his life, he'd grown a bit more gun-shy--not because any political winds favored such a shift (those winds blew past him years ago) but because he was able to accept certain realities. It was that shift that made him uniquely suited to heal the lingering rift between the party's doves and hawks. His committee successors--among them Howard Berman of
Lacking a comparable figure to assume his mantle, liberals will have to learn from Lantos' example on their own: to maintain a belief that justice is worth a fight. But they should do so without a sense that real-time consequences can be ignored. Those consequences, after all, can create just the sorts of calamities that Lantos made a career of opposing.
Correction: An earlier version of this column stated that, of the three major presidential candidates, only Barack Obama had issued a statement acknowledging Lantos's passing. In fact, both Hillary Clinton and John McCain also issued statements on their Senate websites.
Brian Beutler is the Washington Correspondent for The Media Consortium.
By Brian Beutler