Historians and biographers like to play the parlor-game of finding a single small action or decision which, seen in retrospect, affects the future of men and women in public life - and may thereby change the course of history.
Trying to pinpoint such a fateful moment in advance is foolhardy. Still, I'll now play the fool and hazard a wild guess: That what happens in the 12th Congressional District of California within the next 200 days could eventually touch the affairs of nations.
First, in the interests of "transparency" (what us old-timers used to call Truth) I should admit that, in writing this, I wear two hats. With my old politician's fedora covering my bald spot, I take more than a personal interest in what may happen in the 12th CD. It's an open secret that former State Senator Jackie Speier is strongly considering running for that seat. I know and like Jackie and have long admired her legislative accomplishments. Yes, I would like to see her in Congress.
But switching to the silk topper of diplomatic historian and Professor of International Relations, I offer the following thoughts on the future of the man who currently represents the 12th in Washington.
Thirty years ago, when Henry Kissinger left office as Secretary of State, there was much idle talk of his running for the US Senate in New York. I recall chatting about this, at the time, with one of Kissinger's close friends. I pointed out that the former Harvard Prof had no experience at all in electoral politics and no knowledge of domestic legislation. "But", the Kissinger loyalist insisted, "he could be an elder statesman, offering words of wisdom about international relations from the Senate's bully pulpit."
I wasn't convinced and neither, apparently, was Dr. Kissinger, who never threw his hat into the Senatorial ring. Probably he found the prospect of low-down-and-dirty partisan political combat not to his elegant taste. But my reservations had more to do with what he might - and, more likely, might not - have accomplished in the halls of the U.S. Congress.
Washington legislators, sometimes called "representatives", are paid to represent the voters who elect them by proposing and enacting legislation. No matter how globally astute, they are not sent to Washington to pontificate on world affairs. No Congressman (or even Senator), in my half-century memory, has had a significant and lasting impact - while in Congress - on the course of American foreign policy. Legislators can talk, they can make headlines, they can get momentary attention, usually by decrying some current policy of a sitting President. But they are in the wrong arena for exerting real influence on global affairs. To do that, they must move into the rarefied Kissinger-like circles of diplomacy.
It has been done. After 24 years in the US Senate, 16 of those as Democratic Majority Leader, 74 year-old Mike Mansfield accepted President Carter's appointment as US Ambassador to Japan. He stayed on in Tokyo (reappointed, in a surprising spirit of bi-partisanship, by Republican President Reagan) until he was 85, and during those years did much to cement what he called "the most important bilateral relationship in the world".
Democrat Lee Hamilton, leaving Congress after 34 years, with reservoirs of respect from both sides of the aisle for his knowledgeable chairmanship of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, has since served in many advisory roles on national security issues, most recently as leading Democrat on the Iraq Study Group, which did much to force the Bush Administration to reassess its course in the Iraqi conflict. Hamilton is renowned as a master negotiator and an advocate of that now-rare foreign policy bi-partisanship that prevailed in Washington after World War II. But he has put that renown to greatest use by saying farewell to Capitol Hill.
This is the reality which may soon face Hamilton's Democratic successor at the Foreign Affairs Committee, the veteran Congressman from northern California, Thomas Peter Lantos.
On February 1st of next year, Lantos will celebrate his 80th birthday. For more than a third of those eighty years, he has been a Member of Congress, re-elected 13 times without serious opposition. Next March, he is expected to file papers asking the voters of his district to make it 14.
Like Kissinger, Lantos came to America as a Jewish immigrant from Europe, and began his career as an academic, teaching Political Science and Economics in San Francisco. But, unlike the former Secretary of State, Lantos first lived through the Holocaust, miraculously surviving the horrible fate of the Six Million while working in the anti-Nazi underground in his native Hungary.
What sets Lantos apart in the Washington of today, what earns him unique political "clout" within the Democratic Party is that he is a political anomaly: A "progressive" (once known as "liberal") on most domestic questions, but a "hard-liner" on foreign policy; a self-described anti-Communist "old hawk" during the Cold War; at first, a unrepentant supporter of the Iraqi War and now a tough talker about the Iranian nuclear threat - and yet, unlike so many other American Jewish politicians of identical views who have long since thrown in their lot with Republican neo-conservatism, still a loyal Democrat.
With a kindred spirit, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut (whose still-born campaign for the Presidency was co-chaired by Lantos' daughter) now "gone Independent", Lantos, in this unswerving Party loyalty, now stands virtually alone. That fact is not lost on Democratic Party bigwigs, who are keenly aware that Lantos may be the very last Jewish liberal hero of AIPAC, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful "pro-Israel lobby".
More than half of the million dollars in campaign funds Lantos has raised in his last shoo-in congressional races came from outside his District - far more from New York and Chicago than from less-glamorous 12th District Redwood City, Pacifica and Burlingame, or even the San Francisco portion of his District, which adjoins that of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
No doubt Speaker Pelosi believes that Lantos still draws some reluctant support to the Democratic Party from national Jewish contributors who are, at heart, more in tune with the conservative Republicans who have dominated AIPAC during the Bush years. His renown is not merely because of his adamant support of beleaguered Israel, but because he has also dedicated much of his congressional energy to speaking out loudly for the "human rights" of political dissenters and oppressed underdogs throughout the world, whether in Russia, Tibet, Darfur, El Salvador or Burma - symbolic rhetoric that greatly appeals to the humanitarian Jewish soul.