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THE MISCASTING OF CONGRESSMAN LANTOS

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But now, in the next 200 days, all of this - the awareness, the anomaly and indeed Lantos' own self-perception at age 80 - will be re-examined because for the first time in decades, Lantos is likely to have a challenger: Jackie Speier, fellow progressive Democrat and a much-respected and admired state legislator with a dramatic personal history, who is every bit as well-known and popular in the 12th Congressional District.

More than twenty years younger than the Congressman, Jackie also knows something of the evil of blind hatred, being of Armenian descent, as well as having a Jewish grandfather who fled Nazi Germany. And she herself is also a survivor of tragedy and trauma and the violence of religious fanatics: In 1978, when Lantos was still the little-known member of a local school board, Speier, then a twenty-something legislative aide, accompanied her boss and political mentor, Congressman Leo Ryan, on a trip to the South American country of Guyana, where the Rev. Jim Jones had established a religious cult colony. Ryan wanted to investigate allegations that some of Jones' one thousand followers, many Californians, were being held at "Jonestown" against their will.

The aftermath shocked the world: Jones ordered his blindly-obedient gun-toting disciples to kill Ryan and his entourage. Jackie Speier saw the Congressman murdered before her eyes. She too was shot several times at close range and left for dead, while Jones and 900 of his followers, men, women and children, committed mass suicide.

Jackie Speier survived, and with bullets still in her body, embarked on what has been a brilliant political career - six years as County Supervisor, ten years in the California State Assembly and eight in the State Senate, championing legislation for women's rights and consumer protection and health care.

If Speier does indeed run for Congress against Lantos in next June's Democratic Primary, she will make no pretense of being a foreign policy "expert". Without denigrating Lantos' expertise in that field, she may point out that the Congressman has begun to short-change his constituents, being out of touch with their mundane domestic concerns while he makes acerbic newsworthy comments about the Prime Ministers of France and Germany, holds hearings on the political future of Russia, and introduces symbolic legislation to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb that would threaten Israel.

If Lantos remains determined to run for re-election, no matter what, he will dwarf Speier in campaign expenditures. He already has a million-dollar war chest and, if that's not enough, AIPAC-solicited contributions will flow in to his coffers from all over America.

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But the voters of the 12th District, who have overwhelmingly good feelings about both Lantos and Speier, have reportedly begun to question whether their long-time Congressman still truly represents their interests - and may wonder if all this money from outside the State - is a brazen attempt to win their acquiescent silence about ineffective representation.

AIPAC, which has had much adverse publicity recently, even enmeshed in a forthcoming espionage trial, remains secure in its power and influence, and may not care. But it should. Because, in the final analysis, such a Lantos victory, after a hard-fought electoral battle which will certainly draw national attention, may not be "best for Israel". Not merely because of potential non-Jewish backlash, but, more importantly, because Tom Lantos is miscast as a Member of Congress.

Looking ahead to his last decade of public life with true introspection, Lantos may wonder if those causes in which he so passionately believes can be better served by his leaving Congress now - and moving as senior statesman into the arena of diplomacy.

Were Lantos to bow out gracefully, the chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs Committee would probably pass to ranking Democrat Howard Berman of Los Angeles. Berman is 66, smart, able and progressive on virtually every political issue, foreign and domestic. He too is Jewish and like Lantos, he originally voted to authorize American military action in Iraq, and is passionately supportive of Israel. But he is a far more effective nuts-and-bolts legislator than Lantos - and might be more in sync with the younger Democratic foreign policy wonks who would flock to Washington if Senator Clinton were to be elected President.

At the same time, a future President Clinton might find Tom Lantos a diplomatic godsend - provided he leaves Congress with his repute undiminished, unsullied by a bitter electoral battle.

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There has been much talk of Hillary Clinton's waffling on foreign policy and national security - which, say some pundits, stems from her need to appear "tough" on such issues. But there are hazards for liberal Democratic Presidents trying too hard at the outset to prove their fortitude and militancy - recall John F. Kennedy and the ill-conceived disaster of the Bay of Pigs.

In a nuclear world, Presidents must have the luxury of maximum policy flexibility. If there are "tough" words to be spoken, better they should come from the mouths of appointive "hard-liners" - as Bill Clinton concluded when making some of his first national security appointments.

For such a role, Tom Lantos would be ideal, because for all his "hawkishness", he is no sort of conservative, neo- or otherwise, but more the Democratic legatee of his own World War II generation and the Cold War foreign policies of Truman and Kennedy.

Imagine Ambassador Lantos at the United Nations Human Rights Council (or even the UN General Assembly) - verbally shooting from the hip when appropriate, speaking out boldly for universal human rights without fear or favor, and some of the tartness of a John Bolton - but, unlike Bolton, never doubting the fundamental importance of global organization and multi-national consultation.

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Smith is a diplomatic historian and public policy consultant. After serving briefly as a junior Intelligence officer during the Cold War, in 1972, with the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr. as mentor, he wrote the first history of the OSS, the World (more...)
 

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