Tom Lantos: Farewell to a fighter

It was barely a month ago that The Examiner ended an editorial about Rep. Tom Lantos’ impending retirement after 14 terms in Congress by hoping he would overcome his just-diagnosed cancer of the esophagus and live many more years with his wife, Annette, two daughters and 18 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Sadly, that was not to be.

Lantos, 80, passed away Monday at Bethesda Naval Medical Center in Maryland, surrounded by much of his family. He did not get to effectively serve out the remaining year of his final term, as he had planned.

It is truly a shock that Lantos is gone so suddenly. Even as he approached his eighth decade, his nonstop energy was a marvel. Tall, trim and elegant, he took pride in swimming an hour each day in the congressional pool. Returning home to the Peninsula for this year-end congressional break, Lantos met one on one with numerous Bay Area reporters only weeks before his illness was announced.

Tom Lantos represented southwest San Francisco and most of San Mateo County since 1980, a popular longtime San Francisco State University economics professor who won as an underdog in his first election and faced only token opponents ever since. He spent years rising through the ranks of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and finally became chairman when the Democrats won a congressional majority in 2006.

Lantos’ well-known personal history resembles the plot of an uplifting Frank Capra movie. He was the only Holocaust survivor ever elected to Congress. As a Hungarian teenager, he escaped twice from a Nazi forced labor camp, fought in the underground and hid out in a safe house of legendary Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.

Understandably, Lantos overriding interests as an increasingly powerful congressman were international human rights and keeping America strong in foreign relations. As recently as 2006, he was one of the five members of Congress arrested outside the Sudanese Embassy for protesting the ongoing genocide in Darfur.

Yet he also played a key role in obtaining hotly contested federal funding for ambitious projects in the Bay Area. Without Lantos, we would have far poorer versions of today’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Caltrain, BART to the airport and the Devil’s Slide bypass tunnel.

Monday in Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike lauded Lantos as a great leader. President Bush, whom Lantos increasingly turned against on the Iraq war, hailed the congressman as “a man of character and a champion of human rights.”

Lantos himself said it best in his December retirement statement: “It is only in the United States that a penniless survivor of the Holocaust … could have … had the privilege of serving … three decades … as a Member of Congress. I will never be able to express fully my profoundly felt gratitude to this great country.”

The Bay Area is profoundly grateful to Tom Lantos, too.

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