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Tom Lantos

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Tom Lantos

Tom Lantos
Chairman of the House Committee on International Relations
In office
January 3, 2007 – February 11, 2008
Preceded by Henry Hyde
Succeeded by Howard Berman
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from California's 12th district
In office
January 3, 1993 – February 11, 2008
Preceded by Tom Campbell
Succeeded by Jackie Speier
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from California's 11th district
In office
January 3, 1981 – January 3, 1993
Preceded by William Royer
Succeeded by Richard Pombo
Personal details
Born Lantos Tamás Péter
(1928-02-01)February 1, 1928
Budapest, Hungary
Died February 11, 2008(2008-02-11) (aged 80)
National Naval Medical Center, Bethesda, Maryland, U.S.
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Annette Tillemann Lantos (m. 1950-2008; his death); 2 daughters
Alma mater University of Washington, University of California, Berkeley
Occupation politician, college professor, international affairs analyst, business consultant

Thomas Peter "Tom" Lantos (February 1, 1928 – February 11, 2008)[1] was a Democratic member of the United States House of Representatives from California, serving from 1981 until his death as the representative from a district that included the northern two-thirds of San Mateo County and a portion of southwestern San Francisco. Lantos had announced in early January 2008 that he would not run for reelection because of cancer of the esophagus,[2][3] but died before finishing his term. A Hungarian-American, Lantos was the only Holocaust survivor to have served in the United States Congress.[4]

In speaking before the House of Representatives after his death, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stated that Lantos "devoted his public life to shining a bright light on the dark corners of oppression... He used his powerful voice to stir the consciousness of world leaders and the public alike."[5] U2 lead singer Bono called him a "prizefighter", whose stamina would make him go "any amount of rounds, with anyone, anywhere, to protect human rights and common decency".[6]

In 2008, after his death, the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, which he founded in 1983, was renamed the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. Its mission is partly "to promote, defend and advocate internationally recognized human rights". In 2011, the Tom Lantos Institute was set up in Budapest to promote tolerance and support minority issues in central and eastern Europe and in the world.[7]


  • Early years 1
    • World War II 1.1
    • Education 1.2
    • Early career 1.3
  • Personal and family life 2
  • Political career and positions 3
  • Foreign affairs issues 4
    • 1991 Gulf War 4.1
    • War in Iraq 4.2
  • Human rights advocate 5
    • Tibet 5.1
    • Darfur 5.2
    • Hungarian minorities 5.3
    • Lebanon 5.4
    • Morocco and Western Sahara 5.5
  • Death and legacy 6
  • Congressional scorecards 7
  • Controversies 8
  • Electoral history 9
  • References 10
  • External links 11

Early years

World War II

Lantos was born Lantos Tamás Péter (Hungarian pronunciation: ) into a Jewish family in Budapest, Hungary. His family was heavily involved in education and included an uncle who was a professor at the University of Budapest and a grandmother who was a high school principal. His life in Hungary would change after the Third Reich annexing of Austria in 1938, with the Austrian border just 100 miles from Budapest. Lantos remembered this period and a newspaper headline he read when he was only 10, "Hitler Marches into Austria". Even at a young age, he understood the significance of this invasion:[8]

"I sensed that this historic moment would have a tremendous impact on the lives of Hungarian Jews, my family, and myself."

Six years later, in March 1944, the German military invaded Hungary and occupied Budapest, its capital. Lantos, then 16, was arrested because he was Jewish and sent to a forced labor camp outside of Budapest. He escaped but was soon caught by the Germans and beaten severely, to be returned to the labor camp. He again escaped but this time made his way back to Budapest, 40 miles away. There, he hid with an aunt in a safe house set up by Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat.[8]

Lantos joined Wallenberg's network; his fair hair and blue eyes, which to the Nazis were physical signs of Aryanism, enabled him to serve as a courier and deliver food and medicine to Jews living in other safe houses.[9] In January 1945, less than a year later, Russian military forces fought door-to-door battles and liberated Hungary from Nazi occupation. However, Lantos, then 17, returned home only to discover that his mother and other family members had all been killed by the Germans, along with 440,000 other Hungarian Jews, during the preceding 10 months of their occupation.[8] Wallenberg, for his part, was later credited with saving the lives of thousands of other Hungarian Jews.[10]

Lantos described some of his experiences in the Academy Award winning documentary film, The Last Days (1998), produced by Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation. In his floor speeches as a congressman, he sometimes referred to himself as one of the few living members of Congress who had fought against fascism. In 1981, Lantos sponsored a bill making Wallenberg an Honorary Citizen of the United States and became a member of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation. In January 2006, he traveled to Hungary and attended a ceremony commemorating the 61st anniversary of the liberation of the Budapest Ghetto. The event was held at the Great Synagogue in Budapest,[11] (photo), today the largest synagogue in Europe.[12]


In 1946, Lantos enrolled at the University of Budapest. As a result of his fluent English, he wrote an essay about Franklin D. Roosevelt, and he was awarded a scholarship by the Hillel Foundation to study in the United States. He then emigrated to the U.S. and studied economics at the University of Washington in Seattle, where he earned a B.A. in 1949 and an M.A. in 1950. He continued his post-graduate education at the University of California, Berkeley, and received a Ph.D in economics in 1953.[13]

Early career

After graduation from Berkeley, he became a professor of economics at San Francisco State University. In subsequent years, he worked as a business consultant and television commentator on subjects of foreign policy. He eventually became a senior advisor to various U.S. Senators and in 1980 was elected to the U.S. Congress, where he remained until his death in February 2008. Recalling his early life, he announced his retirement by stating to Congress, "I will never be able to express fully my profoundly felt gratitude to this great country."[8]

Personal and family life

Lantos spoke English fluently, but retained his native Hungarian accent. During his childhood, he met Annette Tillemann (born June 27, 1931), whose family had escaped to Switzerland. They used Swedish passports issued by Raoul Wallenberg. After Hungary was liberated, she and her family returned to Budapest where she and Lantos met again. They married in 1950 after emigrating to the United States, and remained married until his death in 2008.[14] Annette Lantos is a niece of Jolie Gabor, whose brother Sebastian was Mrs. Lantos' father, making actresses Zsa Zsa, Magda and Eva Gabor, Jolie's daughters, all originally from Budapest, Annette Lantos's cousins.[15]

Lantos and his wife Annette had two daughters, Annette and Katrina and 18 grandchildren, including: Levi, an author and energy expert; Tomicah, a former Democratic political speechwriter; and Charity, an opera singer and activist. His daughter Annette was married to Timber Dick, an independent businessman in Colorado,[16] until his accidental death in 2008.[17][18]

Lantos' younger daughter, Katrina, is married to ambassador and former U.S. Representative from New Hampshire, Richard Swett, and was herself a candidate for Congress in New Hampshire. Lantos considered himself a secular Jew.[19] His wife and two daughters are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Katrina and Annette (the younger) both married Latter Day Saints (Mormons) and converted for purposes of marriage. It is unclear why Lantos's wife, Annette (the elder), also became a Latter Day Saint.[20] [20]

Political career and positions

Lantos made his first run for office in 1980, challenging Republican Congressman Bill Royer, who had won a 1979 special election after Democrat Leo Ryan was killed in the Jonestown massacre. Lantos defeated Royer by 5,700 votes. He never faced another contest as close as that one, and was reelected 13 times. Lantos earned a reputation as a champion for various human rights causes, such as having Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang testify at a congressional hearing, when the company turned over the email records of two Chinese dissidents to the Chinese government, allowing them to be traced and one sentenced to jail.[21][22]

Lantos was a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and repeatedly called for reforms to the nation's health-care system, reduction of the national budget deficit and the national debt, repeal of the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001. He opposed Social Security privatization efforts. He supported same-sex marriage rights and marijuana for medical use, was a strong proponent of gun control and adamantly pro-choice.

Lantos was an advocate on behalf of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, including Mori Point, Sweeney Ridge and — most recently — Rancho Corral de Tierra, which will keep its watersheds and delicate habitats free from development permanently.[23][24]

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and Lantos

Lantos initially supported the Iraq War, but from 2006 onward, distanced himself, making increasingly critical statements about the conduct of the war. As chairman of the United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs he held 20 oversight hearings on the war in 2007 (see separate section below about the war in Iraq).

Foreign affairs issues

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon with Tom and Annette Lantos

Lantos served as the chairman of the United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Through its more than 20 years of work, the Congressional Human Rights Caucus — of which Lantos was co-chair with Representative Frank Wolf — has covered a wide range of human rights issues, including speaking for Christians in Saudi Arabia and Sudan to practice their faith, helping Tibetans to retain their culture and religion in Tibet, and advocating for other minorities worldwide. Lantos's efforts to protect religious freedom in 2004 resulted in a bill to attempt to stop the spread of anti-semitism.[25]

Lantos was involved with his colleagues on the International Relations Committee on many decisions that affected other aspects of Bush administration failed to take decisive action to halt the current decline in political stability there. Lantos, as ranking Democrat on the International Relations Committee, tried to disrupt U.S. military aid to Egypt, arguing that the Egyptian military had made insufficient efforts to stop the flow of money and weapons across the Egyptian border to Hamas in Gaza, and had not contributed troops to internationally supported peacekeeping efforts in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

1991 Gulf War

Lantos was a strong supporter of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. During the run-up to the war, the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, of which Lantos was co-chairman, hosted a young Kuwaiti woman identified only as "Nurse Nayirah", who told of horrific abuses by Iraqi soldiers, including the killing of Kuwaiti babies by taking them out of their incubators and leaving them to die on the cold floor of the hospital. These alleged atrocities figured prominently in the rhetoric at the time about Iraqi abuses in Kuwait. The girl's account was later challenged by independent human rights monitors.[26] "Nurse Nayirah" later turned out to be the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States. Asked about having allowed the girl to give testimony without identifying herself, and without her story having been corroborated, Lantos replied, "The notion that any of the witnesses brought to the caucus through the Kuwaiti Embassy would not be credible did not cross my mind... I have no basis for assuming that her story is not true, but the point goes beyond that. If one hypothesizes that the woman's story is fictitious from A to Z, that in no way diminishes the avalanche of human rights violations."[26]

Lantos and John R. MacArthur, the foremost critic of the Nayirah issue, each had op-eds in The New York Times, in which each accused the other of distortion. In 1993 MacArthur received the Mencken Award for best editorial/op-ed column for his New York Times exposé of "Nayirah", the Kuwaiti diplomat's daughter who helped fake the Iraqi baby-incubator atrocity.[27] MacArthur suggested that Lantos may have materially benefited from his having accommodated Nayirah.[28]

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation sent investigators to Kuwait who went through the hospital and counted the incubators and they found that "except for one or two that may have been misplaced" all of the incubators were still in the hospital. The investigators concluded that there were no deaths resulting from stolen equipment. And the doctor who provided Amnesty International with the number of babies killed dropped from 312 to 72 and then 30, 19 of which died before the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq. After the war, The New York Times, in an editorial titled "Deception on Capitol Hill" wrote, "It's plainly wrong for a member of congress to collaborate with a public relations firm to produce knowingly deceptive testimony on an important issue.[28] Yet Representative Tom Lantos has been caught doing exactly that. His behavior warrants a searching inquiry by the House Ethics Committee."[29]

War in Iraq

On October 4, 2002, Lantos led a narrow majority of Democrats on the House International Relations Committee to a successful vote in support of the Resolution for the Use of Force, seeking the approval of the United Nations and under the condition that President [30] In later hearings on the war, Lantos continued his enthusiastic support.

Starting in early 2006, Lantos distanced himself from the Bush Administration's Iraq policy, making critical statements at hearings, on the House floor and in published media interviews about the conduct of the war. During hearings of the House International Relations Committee, where he was then the ranking member, Lantos repeatedly praised the investigative work of the office of the Special Inspector of Iraq Reconstruction General Stuart Bowen, which uncovered evidence of waste, fraud and abuse in the use of U.S. taxpayer dollars intended to help secure and rebuild Iraq. Lantos was an immediate and consistent critic of the troop surge advocated by President Bush. On the night in January 2007 that Bush announced his plan, Lantos responded, "I oppose the so-called surge that constitutes the centerpiece of the President's plan. Our efforts in Iraq are a mess, and throwing in more troops will not improve it."

During a joint House hearing on September 10, 2007, featuring General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, Lantos said:

The Administration's myopic policies in Iraq have created a fiasco. Is it any wonder that on the subject of Iraq, more and more Americans have little confidence in this Administration? We can not take ANY of this Administration's assertions on Iraq at face value anymore, and no amount of charts or statistics will improve its credibility. This is not a knock on you, General Petraeus, or on you, Ambassador Crocker. But the fact remains, gentlemen, that the Administration has sent you here today to convince the members of these two Committees and the Congress that victory is at hand. With all due respect to you, I must say ... I don't buy it.

At the same hearing, Lantos drew comparisons between some of the current U.S. activities in Iraq to U.S. support two decades ago of Islamic militants in Afghanistan:

America should not be in the business of arming, training and funding both sides of a religious civil war in Iraq. Did the Administration learn nothing from our country's actions in Afghanistan two decades ago, when by supporting Islamist militants against the Soviet Union, we helped pave the way for the rise of the Taliban? Why are we now repeating the short-sighted patterns of the past?[31]

Human rights advocate

Presenting the Dalai Lama with the Congressional Gold Medal, 2007


As co-founder of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus in 1983 and as Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Lantos would "stir the consciousness of world leaders and the public alike", according to Representative Nancy Pelosi. She added: "Wherever there was injustice or oppression, he used his expertise and moral authority to put the United States on the side of justice and human rights". In 2007, in his effort to help the people of China and Tibet, he presented the Dalai Lama with the Congressional Gold Medal.


On April 28, 2006, Lantos and four other Democratic U.S. Representatives, along with six other activists, took part in a civil disobedience action in front of the Sudanese embassy in Washington, D.C. They were protesting the role of the Sudanese government in carrying out genocide in the Darfur conflict and were arrested for disorderly conduct.[32]

Hungarian minorities

Lantos was an activist for the rights of Hungarian minorities;[33][34] as a member of the US House of Representatives. In a 2007 letter he asked Robert Fico, the Prime Minister of Slovakia to distance themselves from the Beneš decrees, a reasonable process in the Hedvig Malina case, and to treat members of the Hungarian minority as equal.[35][36]

The American Hungarian Federation recognized Congressman Lantos for his "Leadership in Support of Democracy, Human Rights and Minority Rights in Central and Eastern Europe", awarding him the organization's highest award, the "Col. Commandant Michael Kovats Medal of Freedom", at the October 19, 2005, Congressional Reception commemorating the 49th Anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.[37]


On August 27, 2006, at the Lebanon unless and until Beirut agreed to the deployment of international troops on the border with Syria and Lebanon takes control of its borders with Syria to prevent arms smuggling to Hezbollah guerrillas.[38]

Morocco and Western Sahara

Lantos supported Morocco's demand to gain sovereignty over Western Sahara, and criticized the Polisario Front, which demands independence for the disputed region. In 2007, he backed Morocco's proposal to make the region autonomous under Moroccan rule, saying: "I urge the leadership of the Polisario to realize that they will never again get such a good deal for the population they purport to represent."[39]

Death and legacy

On January 2, 2008, after having been diagnosed with esophageal cancer, Lantos announced he would not run for a 15th term in the House but planned to complete his final term, and thanked Congress:

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. I will never be able to express fully my profoundly felt gratitude to this great country."[40]

Lantos died of complications from esophageal cancer on February 11, 2008, before finishing his term. A special election was held to fill his seat on April 8, 2008 and was won by former State Senator Jackie Speier, whom Lantos had endorsed.[41] Shortly after his death, Roy Blunt, the House Republican Whip, stated that "Chairman Lantos will be remembered as 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."[42]

A memorial service was held for Lantos on February 14, 2008 at Statuary Hall in the Capitol. Speakers included Senator Joe Biden, Bono of U2, Rep. Steny Hoyer, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Rep. Christopher Shays and Elie Wiesel.[43]

On June 19, 2008, President [44]

In 2008, Congressional Human Rights Caucus, which he founded in 1983, was renamed The Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. Its mission is partly "to promote, defend and advocate internationally recognized human rights." The first Lantos Human Rights Prize, named in the congressman's memory, was presented to the 14th Dalai Lama in 2009. In 2011, the Institute was set up in Budapest to promote tolerance and support minority issues in central and eastern Europe and in the world.[7]

On September 10, 2011, the Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA officially opened the Tom and Annette Lantos Center for Compassion, located at 1450 Rollins Rd. in Burlingame, California. The facility was funded with a naming gift in the Lantos's honor by Oracle founder, Larry Ellison, and his wife, Melanie.[45]

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