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Tom Lantos leaves the planet

Feb 12, 2008 Tom Lantos leaves the planet

Bill of Rights. (From the public domain.)

When it comes to politicians, I ordinarily have looked at the glass as more than half empty than the other way around. Until the age of fourteen or so (born in 1963), I was optimistic that Nixon was an aberration and that the political system could be made better than in Nixon’s image. Many years later, I learned that I could no longer blame Nixon for surreptitious White House taping; Johnson did it and revealed it to Nixon apparently on Nixon’s inauguration day, and Johnson apparently inherited the taping from Kennedy. So I had to find other ways still to despise Nixon’s presidency, from his bag of dirty tricks to his bigotry to his overall ruthlessness; it appears he felt like a misfit who so much wanted to be liked, and got carried all the more away to the extreme when he got vindicated in 1968 over his 1960 debate and electoral defeat by Kennedy. I did not abhor the man enough (at age nine) to avoid waving back to him along with the crowd as he entered into a news conference in the Washington Hilton where we had just checked in and waited to see the man who only four months later would resign; I even resisted my thoughts about tearing up the autograph my parents got from him at a Manhattan restaurant nineteen years ago — which I have buried somewhere — saying "To Jon- With Best wishes, Richard Nixon."

When Jimmy Carter ran against Ford, I saw hope of putting the Nixon nightmare in the past, and entering an era where the president championed human rights and a non-imperial presidency. Carter’s human rights message profoundly influenced me on my own road to decades of work for human and civil rights. That is not to say, though, that Carter always practiced as he preached, including his targeting of Iranian students for deportation after the shah’s overthrow.

Carter was a rather short-lived intermission sandwiched between Nixon and Ford on the one hand and Reagan and George Bush I on the other. Reagan reigned throughout my college years and until a few months from my law school graduation. I had plenty to get me jaded about politicians and government, after all. After Clinton deposed Bush I, I recognized very clearly that our unjust criminal justice system, for instance, would not be overturned just by having a Democrat in the White House. My jadedness remained towards all politicians, regardless of party. I remain jaded as I try to figure out whether I will vote for Obama or Clinton in the February 12 primary.

As I continued considering my February 12 primary choices, I learned that California United States Rep. Tom Lantos (D. Cal.) had passed away on February 11. I never followed him closely to know about his overall record. I know that he was a fighter from early on, who escaped the nazis. I know that Amnesty International sang his praises after his passing. I know he very publicly challenged Yahoo, Google and friends about their complicity with China’s hunting of dissenters.

I will try to learn more about Tom Lantos. Also, I will try better to view each politician as both a human and on the politician’s own merits or lack thereof, which is how I wish people to view me and how I ideally wish to treat everyone. Jon Katz

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