It was three decades ago that Joe Biden, then one of the youngest members of the U.S. Senate and today the vice president of the United States, was planning his honeymoon. His foreign policy advisor, Tom Lantos, came up with the idea that Biden and his brand new wife should spend their honeymoon in Hungary. The Bidens followed his advice. Lantos organized everything and to Biden’s surprise he announced that he and his wife Annette would accompany the newlyweds. And indeed they went. All four of them. Biden later recalled that Lantos presented Hungary as if he were the CEO of a tourist agency. The best fish can be found in Hungary. Lake Balaton is the nicest lake in the whole world. The bridges across the Danube are the most spectacular in the universe. The world’s most famous scientists, actors, mathematicians, composers, and poets were all Hungarians. Not only Biden but scores of American delegations went to Hungary since and they all heard the same accolades from him.
Even in his last years he visited Hungary, often twice a year, and when he had time he went to the theater. To Hungarian theater. Perhaps I don’t have to say how much he loved Hungarian food. His face lighted up when he talked about sausages from Csaba. Visitors in his Washington office got Hungarian coffee. At home, even under the shower, he sang Hungarian songs. When I visited him the last time, he wanted to hear his favorite Hungarian song. His beloved grandchild was singing on CD selections from old, popular Hungarian operettas.
He became an outstanding orator of the U.S. Congress. He spoke in perfectly constructed paragraphs that could be printed without any editing. However, he retained a slight Hungarian accent which, as it turned out, was rather similar to mine. Once, more than fifteen years ago, I suggested to him that before he embarks on a trip to the Near East he should ask for detailed information from the research department of the State Department that was headed at that time by my wife. He dialed the number I gave him and put the speaker phone on in order for me to hear the conversation. He was very proud of that phone which for him–someone who didn’t write on a computer, didn’t use a cell phone, and didn’t send e-mails—was the pinnacle of technical development. So, I heard the conversation that went something like this: “Hello, I’m Representative Tom Lantos. May I speak with The Honorable Toby Gati?” After a few seconds of silence my wife, who couldn’t imagine that this famous congressman would call her himself and thought that she recognized my Hungarian accent, answered, “Charles, I’m really sick and tired of your stupid little games. When are you going to grow up?” Actually my wife used stronger words …
Tom Lantos remained Hungarian not only in his accent. He loved Lajos Kossuth and could recite the poetry of Sándor Petőfi. He hummed the melodies of operettas from before the war. Both of his daughters spoke Hungarian as did some of his grandchildren. One of them studied music at the Franz Liszt Academy. Another wrote his doctoral dissertation on a Hungarian topic. Even when he became the chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and thus was very busy, he always found time to spend long hours with his friend András Simonyi, Hungarian Ambassador to the United States, whom he liked as a person and respected for his views. And perhaps this is the place to mention a little secret that very people know. Tom sometimes intimated that once he became tired of being a congressman and retired he would consider returning to Hungary for good.
Tom Lantos also became an American patriot. In brief: he loved the United States. If I want to be more expansive: he loved the United States very much. Let me quote what he said once about America: “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.”
The recurring motif in Tom’s speeches and even in his private conversations was that the United States saved Europe three times from the claws of totalitarianism. First, in World War I; second, in World War II; and third, at the time of the Cold War. He was aware of the fact that gratitude is not a political category. After all, Tom Lantos was an idealist but not naïve. Yet he was still hurt when he noticed that someone didn’t acknowledge America’s positive contribution. He was equally offended by the appeasement of the Nazis in Munich and by the belittling of the Soviet danger. One must take steps against extremists before it is too late—this is what he learned from the history of the twentieth century. In one of his last speeches before his death he lashed out at the former German chancellor who, so to speak, sold himself to Gazprom, which was under the authority of an ever more aggressive Russian government. He said it jokingly but he meant it seriously: “If the hookers in my district didn’t take offense at the association, I would call the former German chancellor a prostitute.”
What Tom Lantos valued in the United States was not only that the U.S. opposed dictatorships but that it stood for the proposition that even the least effective democracy is worth more than the most effective dictatorship.
He was especially interested in political values. Respect for human rights. The situation of the Hungarian minorities in the neighboring countries. The fight against overt or covert anti-Semitism.
Lantos was always his own man. When in the United States many people think that China shouldn’t be criticized because it is an important commercial partner, Tom was a demonstrative supporter of the Dalai Lama. When in the United States many people believe that one ought to treat Russia with care because we might need her today or tomorrow, Tom didn’t hesitate: he condemned the Russian government for its severe violation of freedom of the press, for the annihilation of an independent judiciary, and for its insensitivity toward the most basic human rights. In 2005 he flew to Moscow where he demonstrated for the release of Mikhail Khodorkovsky in front of a courthouse there.
It was this value system that motivated him when in the early 1990s he spoke about István Csurka’s anti-Semitism on the floor of the House of Representatives. He paid no attention to those who warned him that it is not proper diplomatic form to meddle in another country’s internal affairs. His answer was that nations matter and sovereignty is an essential part of an orderly world, but what is most important is the defense of universal human rights. After all, Tom experienced himself what it means when the world doesn’t act in time against Nazis, Fascists, Arrow Cross hooligans — or their successors.
What would he say today? Surely he would severely criticize President Barack Obama, a member of his own party, because during his negotiations in Moscow he neglected to bring up the question of human rights. He would criticize Secretary of State Hillary Clinton because when she visited Beijing she didn’t talk publicly about the issue of human rights. Lantos didn’t believe that an American politician should criticize the anti-democratic actions of another country only in private.
This week, if he were to go to the opening of the Lantos Institute in Budapest at all, what would he say? What would he say about today’s Hungary? After two decades of friendship I don’t find it difficult to imagine that speech. But I will not attend the opening. Relating here the contents of that imagined speech would only ruin the celebration.
Charles Gati is Senior Adjunct Professor of Russian and Eurasian Studies at the School of Advanced International Studies/Johns Hopkins University.
The Hungarian original appeared in today's Népszabadság.