Tom Lantos sat in a desert tent, eyeball to eyeball with Muammar Khaddafi, when he noticed a strange stick-like object lying at the Libyan dictator’s side.
“Tom worried it might be a weapon,” recalled Ron Kaufman, who heard the story firsthand from his friend Lantos. “Finally Khaddafi used it as a flyswatter.”
Even if it had been a weapon, Lantos would surely have confronted Khaddafi, just as he confronted human rights violators around the world. That combination of Old World courtliness and righteous courage sticks uppermost in the minds of Lantos’ many friends around the Bay Area.
“Tom could be very tough and direct,” added Kaufman, a San Francisco Jewish community activist. “He made it a point to know most of these characters and talk to them. That’s an interesting point of view: to have tough talks rather than no talks.”
Lantos died Feb. 11 of esophageal cancer. He was 80.
Kaufman had known Lantos from before his election to Congress in 1980. In fact, he recalls Lantos initially querying him about a congressional run not for himself, but for his daughter Katrina.
“I said, ‘No, Tom, she’s way too young,'” Kaufman remembered. “‘As someone who knows foreign affairs, as an economist, you’re from central casting.'”
“I remember being in a warehouse down in San Mateo County when the news came in that he had won. It was like a miracle.”
That first run — the year of the Reagan landslide — stands out in the mind of Lantos’ former executive assistant Brian Rosman.
“We won by pulling out the kind of grassroots stops, by connecting to people. We’d go to major street corners like El Camino Real in San Mateo, and while traffic stopped at red lights, [Lantos] would go up to cars in the middle of the street and hand out campaign literature.”
The only Holocaust survivor ever elected to Congress, Lantos claimed the moral high ground on global human rights issues and defense of Israel. But his friends in the Bay Area also remember a man intensely devoted to his district.
Lantos was the leading force behind the preservation of Sweeney Ridge, between Pacifica and Millbrae. During the era of Reagan Interior Secretary James Watt, Lantos pressed the issue to fruition.
“In the end, it came down to the very last minute with the Reagan administration throwing in the towel,” Rosman said. “Because of that, Sweeney Ridge open space is protected forever. To think that could have been condos up there makes me appreciate Tom’s work so much.”
Rosman also admired his boss’s “human concern for everybody he would encounter. Constituents would come in who didn’t know him from Adam, and he would drop everything and insist they get a personalized tour of the Capitol building. He was really able to connect with people in a one-to-one way.”
Rosman, married to a rabbi and now working with a Boston health care advocacy group, believes Lantos served the Jewish community particularly well.
“Tom really saw himself as playing a unique role in Congress as a voice of conscience,” he added. “Because he suffered under the Nazis, and then fought against the communists, he had a unique credential to talk about human rights not as a left versus right issue, but as an apolitical issue, a universal issue.”
Regina Waldman said the Soviet Jewry movement, of which she was a local leader, provided a natural springboard for Lantos’ leadership.
“I had the opportunity to meet him and work with him very closely, and his wife [Annette] as well,” she said. “He was extremely supportive of anything to do with Soviet Jewry. He hardly ever missed the rallies we had.”
The Libyan-born Waldman, who now co-chairs JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and Africa) would go on to work with Lantos again. Last year he called her to testify before his Human Rights Caucus.
“To him humanity had no borders and had no colors.”
Another friend, Jewish community activist Naomi Lauter, valued Lantos’ passion for Israel and the Jewish people.
“His Jewishness had kind of been reborn from the Soviet Jewry movement,” she said. “He felt he had to work to save Jews and really, from that time on, was devoted to that. He started trying to meet Jews all over the country and try to get them involved, which he did.”
The Democratic congressman consistently reached out across the aisle, and he had many Republican friends, among them local Jewish philanthropist Ronald Wornick.
“He was a man of such extraordinary dignity,” Wornick said. “His competence at articulating very complex ideas was extraordinary. Even in areas where we might not have seen eye-to-eye, I knew there were no Machiavellian politics involved.”
Wornick echoes others who remarked on Lantos’ knack for making friends and constituents feel at ease.
“If you let him know you were in D.C., you would get the kind of welcome afforded to a head of state. He made you feel you were the most important supporter he ever had. If you were having a quick encounter in a coffee shop or at the airport, it was the same guy you’d see on TV. There was only one Tom Lantos.”
Kaufman last saw his friend in December 2007, when Lantos was still looking forward to running for re-election the following year. He later changed his mind, announcing in January both his cancer and decision to retire. But his sudden death left his friends reeling and the Jewish community in mourning.
“It’s hard to predict what the loss means,” noted Kaufman. “Here’s someone at the peak of his career as the chair of [the House Foreign Affairs Committee]. He had so much more he could do. He leaves a void in terms of support of Israel and for human rights around the world.”