House Foreign Affairs Chairman Lantos Dies
By Edward Epstein, CQ Staff
Feb. 11, 2008
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos, a leading congressional champion of human rights, died Monday at the Bethesda Naval Medical Center.
Lantos, 80, had announced last month that he had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer and would not seek re-election to a 15th term in office.
He will be buried Wednesday in Congressional Cemetery, and a memorial service will be held Thursday in the Capitol, two leadership aides said.
Although his death is not expected to alter the partisan balance in the House, it creates a sixth vacancy, four in Republican-held seats and two in seats previously occupied by Democrats. Special elections or primaries are scheduled next month for four of those six seats.
All told, six House members have died since the start of the current Congress in January 2007, and five others have resigned to take other offices or jobs.
Lantos was born in Budapest and was the only Holocaust survivor ever elected to Congress. When he disclosed his illness last month, the California Democrat praised his adopted homeland, saying, “It is only in the United States that a penniless survivor of the Holocaust and a fighter in the anti-Nazi underground could have received an education, raised a family, and had the privilege of serving the last three decades of his life as a member of Congress.”
He was the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, a post he assumed at the start of the 110th Congress in 2007, and the second-ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
In 1983, Lantos was a founding co-chairman of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, and under his leadership, the Foreign Affairs Committee took up a range of human rights issues.
He was a vigorous supporter of Israel, and both a supporter and a critic of the United Nations.
Colleagues from both sides of the partisan divide paid tribute to him Monday.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi , D-Calif., who represents a neighboring district in San Franciso, said Lantos’ death was “a profound loss for the Congress and for the nation and a terrible loss for me personally.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid , D-Nev., who had served with Lantos on the House Foreign Affairs panel before he was elected to the Senate, said, “his devotion to the cause of human rights was as inspiring as it was tireless.”
House Minority Whip Roy Blunt , R-Mo., called him “a man of uncommon integrity and sincere moral conviction – and a public servant who never wavered in his pursuit of a better, freer and more religiously tolerant world.”
Illeana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, said, “An unfailingly gracious and courageous man, Tom was recognized by friends and colleagues alike as a leader who left an enviable legacy of service to his country.”
For years, Lantos and his wife were accompanied to the Rayburn House Office Building by their poodle Gigi. After she died of old age, Lantos began bringing to his office his neighbor’s West Highlands terrier, Max. He called the little white dog Macko, which means “little teddy bear’’ in Hungarian.
Rep. Howard L. Berman , D-Calif., is next in line by seniority for the Foreign Affairs chairmanship. Berman, 66, currently chairs the Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet and Intellectual Property, where he has devoted years to advancing intellectual property rights. He would have to relinquish that gavel to lead the full Foreign Affairs Committee.
Ranking just below Berman on Foreign Affairs is Democrat Gary L. Ackerman of New York, who currently chairs the Middle East and South Asia Subcommittee.
Labor Camp Escapee
Lantos was 16 when the Nazis occupied the Hungarian capital in 1944 and began to round up the country’s Jews. He was sent to a labor camp in Szob, a village north of Budapest, escaped, was captured and beaten, and escaped a second time.
He returned to the capital and found refuge in one of the apartment buildings that the audacious Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg had taken over as safe havens for Jews. The blue-eyed Lantos served as a courier, secretly delivering food to other Jews.
After his election to Congress, Lantos repaid his debt to Wallenberg by pushing through legislation making the Swede, who disappeared into Soviet captivity after World War II, an honorary U.S. citizen. He also got a bust of Wallenberg installed in a niche in the Capitol.
After the Soviets liberated Budapest in 1945, Lantos searched unsuccessfully for his mother and other family members, all of whom had perished. He later located childhood friend Annette Tilleman, a cousin of the famous Gabor sisters, who had fled to Switzerland. The two married and were inseparable — she came to work with him every day and frequently gave tours to Lantos’ constituents.
They raised two daughters and have 18 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, many of whom were at his bedside when he died, according to his office.