Steve Solarz, RIP
He was a dynamo who could work from morning to late at night and be eager to wake up and do the same thing all over again. He always spoke with a fierce intensity, accompanied by a smile, choosing his words with care and marshaling facts and arguments from today's newspaper, yesterday's academic study, and history that most had long forgotten. He had a passion for human rights and democracy and a bias in favor of politicians who found themselves in the opposition, and he might be seen as an instinctive feminist because of his skill at identifying women destined to lead their nations.
I'll miss Steve Solarz, whose funeral was today. Steve, who died on Monday, served nine terms in Congress, representing a Brooklyn district. I owe him a personal debt, since my wife was working for him when I met her at a D.C. subway station 23 years ago. If she hadn't been working for Steve, she probably would not have been on that escalator. That is also a way of saying that I am certainly biased in my take on Steve, so think of this as an appreciation, not an obituary. But I do know that my respect and affection for him is widely shared. He had an exceptionally loyal staff, and Solarz alumni rose to high positions in government, academia and the private sector. He stayed close to them to his final days. My wife always said that he worked his staff hard but himself harder, and he appreciated the work people did for him and with him.
Two things stand out for me in Steve's career (well summarized by Doug Martin in The New York Times). The first was his consistent support for democracy and human rights, from Rhodesia to the Philippines to Vietnam -- to pretty much every other country where tyrants suppressed freedom.
This human rights commitment also bred a fascinating habit that made Steve one of the best-informed people I knew when it came to the internal politics of other nations. Wherever he would go (and Steve went everywhere -- The New York Times said he visited over 100 countries), he would not confine himself to briefings from government officials. Wherever he could, he made it a point to visit with opposition politicians and activists. He would say that he typically learned far more about what was happening in a country from opposition figures and dissidents than from officials who had to confine themselves to, well, official stories and approved lines.
This habit also meant that when dictators faced a rising tide of opposition, Steve was on good terms with those who were leading the democratic revolts. He became a hero in the Philippines for his opposition to Ferdinand Marcos and his revelations about Marcos' misuse of foreign aid and his previously unknown real estate empire. From his habit of meeting with opposition leaders, he became friends with Corazon Aquino, who led the 1986 People Power revolution that toppled Marcos. She eventually became president.
His friendship with Aquino reflected another habit: of spotting female talent and championing women who were political leaders. He was also friendly with Nicaragua's Violeta Chamorro and was one of the few Americans (to the best of my memory, anyway) who predicted that Chamorro would win Nicaragua's 1990 election over Daniel Ortega. She did. He was close as well to Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto -- again reflecting his habit of supporting the rights of political oppositions facing authoritarian regimes.
Steve was a loyal Democrat, but not a partisan, and a lot of Republicans deeply admired him. When President George H.W. Bush decided the United States needed to go to war to end Saddam Hussein's occupation of Kuwait, Steve not only strongly supported him but also became one of the most thoughtful and forceful Congressional voices in backing Bush's policy. I have always thought (and I know I am not alone in this) that Steve's case for the Gulf War, offered in a lengthy article in The New Republic, was a better argument than the administration itself typically mustered on behalf of its own policy. That stand took courage. It wasn't popular among many of the liberals who had long supported Steve. When New York's Congressional delegation was reduced by in the 1990 Census, his position on the Gulf War was not particularly helpful to him when he had to run in a new district. He lost and left Congress, but his love for foreign policy remained, and so did his engagement with foreign leaders, intellectuals and historians (Steve loved historians) whom he and his wife Nina regularly hosted for dinner.
Steve was a good man, a smart man, and a lover of democracy. I'll miss him, and the country will miss his talents.
Update, 12/5: In this tribute, I called attention to the New York Times' obituary for Steve, figuring many readers might not have seen it. I want to add a link to Adam Bernstein's lovely and evocatively written obituary in The Post. He nicely captured many aspects of Solarz's life and personality -- and also Solarz's sense of humor about his extensive foreign travels. "I may not have much influence in Brooklyn," Solarz once said, "but they think I'm very important in Mongolia."
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