February 14, 2008
I managed to watch a bit of today’s congressional memorial service for Tom Lantos. The speakers included rock star Bono, the Secretary General of the United Nations, the Speaker of the House, the Chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and the Secretary of State, among others. What a fitting tribute for such a fine and decent man, someone I admired greatly from our very first encounter nearly 30 years ago.
His death had me thinking today about my favorite Tom Lantos story.
Tom was running his first race for Congress against a GOP incumbent, Bill Royer, in what was generally a pretty good year for Republicans. As I recall, Tom, an economics professor at the time, wasn’t really a long shot in that particular race, per se, but he certainly was an underdog and a pretty clear one at that. His first election to Congress was no sure thing.
Way back then I hosted a local radio news program called Feedback with Hal Plotkin on KPEN 97.7FM, a small WKRP in Cincinnati-ish radio station housed in the long since demolished Old Mill Shopping Center in Mountain View. KPEN was a tiny, 3000-watt commercial station whose very limited reach by happenstance was roughly contiguous with the congressional district in which Tom was running. As a result, Tom and his GOP opponent were frequent guests on my program, with Tom continuing those semi-regular appearances after he was elected.
One of my favorite memories from those days is something that happened during what I think was Tom’s first appearance on my show. Tom arrived at our studio with his wife Annette at his side (they always traveled together, I never saw them apart) about a month or so before that first election. Outside, it was raining hard. Tom was obviously pumped up, very eager to talk about the issues of the day, what he thought was at stake, his positions, and why the election mattered. He had worked himself up into an eloquent frenzy which I dared not interrupt with a commercial as he ticked off the obstacles to human progress along with his detailed plans to overcome them. He talked emphatically about his desire to champion human rights and about the moral obligations of the individual. And he talked about his tight, uphill political fight.
About that time, right in the middle of our live program, my sound engineer, who had apparently been trying to get my attention, knocked on the window that separated the studio from the control room. “The tower’s down,” he shouted. “We’ve been knocked off the air.”
Tom turned immediately to Annette. “Did you hear that?,” he asked, his courtly Hungarian accent suddenly edged with fear, excitement and determination. “Somebody’s blown up the transmitter!”
The year was 1980. But I got the sense that for a moment or two there Tom and Annette were transported back in time to Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe, where seeking political power was a dangerous game and politics was not a hobby. Tom was deadly serious.
My engineer laughed as I quickly told Tom and Annette that foul play was unlikely. Instead, I explained to them that our little station was pretty regularly off the air thanks to transmitter woes caused by anything from a stiff wind to an amorous squirrel. I think at one point our transmitter was held together by a jock strap. Tom relaxed some when he heard this information but I am not quite sure he really believed it. Although, I think Annette did.
We taped the rest of that interview and broadcast it when the tower was repaired, later that night. I interviewed Tom, and visited with his delightful wife, Annette, many times before I left KPEN a few years later. He was always one of my favorite interviews. I even started bringing bagels and lox to some of those sessions in hopes he and Annette would stick around afterwards, which they often did.
I’m sorry I did not get a chance to visit with Tom in more recent years, which he spent primarily on the national and international stage. But I’ll always look back on my chance to cover his first race for Congress as a very special opportunity to be a witness to history. Tom became a powerful voice for the powerless. It’s sad to see him go.