Tom Lantos has died after bout with cancer

February 11, 2008 5:29:59 PM PST
Representative Tom Lantos lost his battle with cancer today, at the age of 80. President Bush praised the San Mateo Congressman as a man of character and a champion of human rights.

Tom Lantos died at Bethesda Naval hospital early today surrounded by loved ones - his wife, two daughters, 17 grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

For 28 years, the San Mateo Democrat was the most vocal member of Congress on the issue of human rights. After nearly becoming a victim of Hitler's final solution, that voice carried a lot of weight.

Flags in Washington fly at half staff today in honor of Congressman Tom Lantos -- a Holocaust survivor and educator who liked to refer to himself as "an American by choice." His colleagues in Congress say this is a sad day for America.

"He was a very eloquent, passionate representative who had credibility of life experience, but also he was enormously intellectually clean. He had a way of speaking that was very compelling," said Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D) Walnut Creek.

Lantos was born in Hungary in 1928. At the age of 16, he joined the resistance fighting the Nazis until he was caught and sent to a forced labor camp near Budapest. He watched in horror as neighbors and relatives died before he escaped and made his way to the U.S. in 1947. That experience made him a fearless spokesman for human rights. He and other protestors were arrested during a sit-in over genocide in Darfur. And who could forget his grilling of Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang during last November's hearing on the company's involvement in the jailing of a Chinese journalist?

"While technologically and financially you are giants, morally you are pigmies," said Lantos.

Lantos was a Ph.D. in economics who taught at San Francisco State for three decades. In 1980, he beat the Republican incumbent in the 12th Congressional District and was re-elected 13 times. In January, Lantos went public with his cancer diagnosis, and said he would not seek re-election. Senator Dianne Feinstein says he also decided not to undergo chemotherapy.

"He said to me: I've done what I had to do in life. I'm proud of what I've accomplished and I'm prepared for whatever comes," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) California.

Lantos was chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. In a statement today, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, from San Francisco, said Lantos' leadership was felt around the world, but he always remained a fierce advocate for his constituents in San Francisco and San Mateo counties. Tom Lantos was 80-years-old.