WASHINGTON — Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo) sparked a war of words this week when he said a witness at a congressional hearing was hiding his past, much in the same manner as a former Nazi had concealed his.
Lantos grew incensed during the hearing as Republicans questioned Donald Smaltz, the independent counsel investigating the former U.S. secretary of agriculture.
During querying by Republicans, the line of questions appeared aimed at minimizing Smaltz's strong affiliation with the GOP party.
Smaltz left the impression that he had been a Democrat since the 1950s, when he was president of his college campus' Young Democrats. In fact, Smaltz has been a registered Republican since 1967.
Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor in Congress, obviously took exception to the line of questioning. When it was his turn to question Smaltz, he compared Smaltz's selective memory to that of Kurt Waldheim, the former U.N. secretary-general and president of Austria, who hid his Nazi past for decades.
Lantos told Smaltz that Waldheim "also had a lapse in memory. He conveniently forgot several years when he was a Nazi, and this came out after he left office."
Smaltz shot back that he took "umbrage" at any comparison to Waldheim.
The total exchange at the hearing, which focused on Attorney General Janet Reno's decision not to appoint an independent counsel to investigate President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore for campaign fund-raising practices, took only two minutes.
But this week, Republicans and Democrats have spent hours on the issue, trading rhetoric in numerous press releases.
Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson, in a widely circulated news release, demanded an apology from Lantos for comparing the Republican Party to the Nazis.
In an angry response, Lantos said his remarks were aimed only at Smaltz and demanded his own apology for the "totally inaccurate and misleading" news release.
Lantos defended his comparison of Smaltz to Waldheim in remarks published in the San Francisco Chronicle.
"The more I think about it the more I think I was totally proper and correct," Lantos said.
"If you overlook your involvement in the KKK, or the Nazi party, or the Republican Party, you are lying. You are deceitful."
Four news releases later, Nicholson responded that Lantos "would be well served to tone down your incendiary rhetoric."
Not surprisingly, the National Jewish Coalition, a Republican group, expressed support for Nicholson in the spat while the National Jewish Democratic Council backed Lantos.
But Ira Forman, executive director of NJDC, added that "one could argue that a more sensitive analogy could have been used" by Lantos.