Last summer, I had the pleasure of witnessing the first spark of a small diplomatic row.
On a hot June day beneath a searing sun, California Democratic Congressman Tom Lantos, who passed away this week, joined President Bush and others, in a show of bipartisanship, to dedicate the new Victims of Communism Memorial, in the nation's capital. However, that day bipartisanship stopped at the water's edge.
A Holocaust survivor and fervent anti-Communist, the Hungarian-born Lantos had a thick accent and propensity for hyperbole that made him one of Congress's more colorful characters. It also gave him an air of authority on totalitarianism and how to fight it -- and on that hot early summer day he was going to use it.
Lantos blasted former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and former French President Jacques Chirac for their failure to fight "Islamofascism" and their ingratitude to America for World War II.
"I am so glad that the era of Jacques Chirac and Chancellor Schroeder in Germany is now gone," he said, before really letting it rip.
He called Schroeder a "political prostitute, now that he's taking big checks from Putin" (Schroeder took a consulting job with a Russian oil firm shortly after leaving office), and then twisted it a bit more. Lantos quipped that "the sex workers in my district objected so I will no longer use that phrase."
As for former French President Jacques Chirac, Lantos suggested he go down to Normandy to look at the American military cemetery there, and thank us for saving his country's behind.
Despite Lantos's praise for Chancellor Angela Merkel, the German government was not amused at this tirade against its former head. Many spectators, myself included, were certainly surprised at the severity of Lantos's missives. It wasn't the first time he had stood people on their ears that way.
Who could forget Lantos's performance during the 1996 House hearings into the scandal that became known as Filegate? Clinton White House operative Craig Livingstone had requested and received, for no good reason, files on hundreds of prominent Republicans. Political skullduggery was in the air.
Though a loyal Democrat, Lantos verbally beat down Livingstone over his handling of the affair. The U.S. Navy Admiral Jeremy Boorda had recently killed himself when the legitimacy of some medals had been questioned by a reporter. "With an infinitely more distinguished public record than yours," said Lantos, "Admiral Boorda committed suicide when he may have committed a minor mistake."
That sounds horrible, until you consider how slimy Livingstone's actions really were, in which case such talk becomes refreshing.
I did not agree with Lantos on much beside the evil of Communism, but I did appreciate his almost oblivious willingness to throw overboard the excessive formality and stifling protocol that characterizes so much of Washington's official business.
Such outbursts, of course, mean little in terms of policy, and there's little in his voting record for which fans of this magazine would praise Lantos. The American Conservative Union gives him a lifetime rating of 7.8 out of 100.
But the kind of blatant disregard for the stultifying conventions of official Washington at which Lantos excelled is part of what helps keep a democracy vibrant. And his uncompromising attacks on totalitarian governments always rang sincere.
Oh, and it's certainly nice to hear someone call Gerhard Schroeder a "political prostitute." For that he will be missed. RIP.