The secretary of state who wasn’t: Reflections on the passing of a mensch-statesman

Stephen J. Solarz, who died Monday afternoon at the age of 70 after a long, courageous battle with cancer, was a member of the U.S. Congress’ "Watergate Class" of 1974. He served 18 remarkable and illustrious years in the House of Representatives, becoming one of the Democratic Party’s most respected foreign-policy leaders. He was so ...

Richard A. Lipski/The Washington Post
Richard A. Lipski/The Washington Post
Richard A. Lipski/The Washington Post

Stephen J. Solarz, who died Monday afternoon at the age of 70 after a long, courageous battle with cancer, was a member of the U.S. Congress' "Watergate Class" of 1974. He served 18 remarkable and illustrious years in the House of Representatives, becoming one of the Democratic Party's most respected foreign-policy leaders. He was so bold and courageous in his calls for the United States to pull back its support for the corrupt and abusive regime of Ferdinand Marcos that Corazon Aquino dubbed him "the Lafayette of the Philippines." He played an instrumental role in leading support for the first Gulf War. He attacked human rights abuses and worked to broker the end to brutal conflicts. He chaired both the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Subcommittee on Africa.

With such a record, it was no surprise that he was considered for years to be a likely future secretary of State. He studied foreign affairs avidly, immersed himself in his travels, worked tirelessly and did not suffer fools lightly. I know this because when I began working for him shortly after I left graduate school, I surely qualified as a fool -- if not by disposition then by virtue of my utter ignorance. But he generously not only gave me my first professional opportunity, but for the following 30 years he patiently shared his insights, his wisdom, and his humor, and offered an example I will remember and treasure the rest of my life.

As Steve used to joke, he "represented a district that would have elected Mussolini if he were a Democrat." It was the Brooklyn of Coney Island and Midwood, of Ocean Parkway and Avenue U, a district "with more Jews than live in Tel Aviv" and thus one that not only tolerated his interest in the rest of the world but encouraged it. Having a congressman who knew and quoted Abba Eban or Yitzhak Rabin was a plus even in a country where some mind-boggling percentage of members of the House didn't (and don't) even have passports. Of course, as his press secretary I spent hours squirreled away in his offices in the district, writing press releases about new subway escalators and the thrilling periodic visits to DC where we would work on issues closer to my heart and his, from East Timor to arms control, from the Middle East to the latest diplomatic crisis.

Stephen J. Solarz, who died Monday afternoon at the age of 70 after a long, courageous battle with cancer, was a member of the U.S. Congress’ "Watergate Class" of 1974. He served 18 remarkable and illustrious years in the House of Representatives, becoming one of the Democratic Party’s most respected foreign-policy leaders. He was so bold and courageous in his calls for the United States to pull back its support for the corrupt and abusive regime of Ferdinand Marcos that Corazon Aquino dubbed him "the Lafayette of the Philippines." He played an instrumental role in leading support for the first Gulf War. He attacked human rights abuses and worked to broker the end to brutal conflicts. He chaired both the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Subcommittee on Africa.

With such a record, it was no surprise that he was considered for years to be a likely future secretary of State. He studied foreign affairs avidly, immersed himself in his travels, worked tirelessly and did not suffer fools lightly. I know this because when I began working for him shortly after I left graduate school, I surely qualified as a fool — if not by disposition then by virtue of my utter ignorance. But he generously not only gave me my first professional opportunity, but for the following 30 years he patiently shared his insights, his wisdom, and his humor, and offered an example I will remember and treasure the rest of my life.

As Steve used to joke, he "represented a district that would have elected Mussolini if he were a Democrat." It was the Brooklyn of Coney Island and Midwood, of Ocean Parkway and Avenue U, a district "with more Jews than live in Tel Aviv" and thus one that not only tolerated his interest in the rest of the world but encouraged it. Having a congressman who knew and quoted Abba Eban or Yitzhak Rabin was a plus even in a country where some mind-boggling percentage of members of the House didn’t (and don’t) even have passports. Of course, as his press secretary I spent hours squirreled away in his offices in the district, writing press releases about new subway escalators and the thrilling periodic visits to DC where we would work on issues closer to my heart and his, from East Timor to arms control, from the Middle East to the latest diplomatic crisis.

I remember vividly the time he took me on my first visit to the White House during which he invited me in to a meeting with then-National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. Just the three of us. Me, perhaps 22 at the time. Brzezinski at his intimidating best. Solarz, not forty yet, holding his own, advancing his points with grace and eloquence.

Eloquence mattered to him. There was a school of politics back then in which rhetorical command was still highly valued, something more than today’s soundbites or cable news sniping. Solarz, like the Kennedy brothers or Daniel Patrick Moynihan or Eban, the ultimate master, spoke in perfectly formed paragraphs, always seeking the right balance of dignity and substance, humor and sharp points where needed.

His intensity could be off-putting. Truth be told, he was not — despite his nine electoral victories — a natural politician. He alienated enemies and, sometimes, friends. In Washington, an old maxim is that you need both a great inside game and a great outside game. He ruffled enough feathers with his lack of attention to the inside game that when he hit turbulence toward the end of his time in Congress, potential allies stepped away from him. Opponents in Albany carved up his district in a way that forced him to choose between running against his friends and running in a district with which he had precious little connection. He chose the unfamiliar district, was a political fish out of water, and lost in the Democratic primary in 1992. It might have been a moment of opportunity. He was only 52. Two months later, a Democrat would be elected president and perhaps he could begin his long foretold ascent to the job he was best suited for, the one in the big office in Foggy Bottom.

His name came up to be ambassador to India, a post he would have filled exceptionally well. But an old enemy from the State Department raised the issue of a questionable contact he had made in Hong Kong and once again, potential allies retreated into the shadows and did not point out that the assertions made about him were absurd reasons to block the career of a man who had devoted his life to exceptional public service. It was an episode of gutless Washington at its worst and the American people were the ultimate losers.

Solarz went on to a distinguished post-congressional career, continuing to immerse himself in foreign policy, to lead the search for lasting solutions to the most complex international problems and to provide warm, wise advice to his friends and love to his dear family.

And then he got sick. And then he died. And now the memories come flooding back and it is clear that we are sorely in need of everything he was — a dedicated student of foreign policy, a believer in the old school doctrine that national interests always trumped partisanship, a man who placed principle before reflexive loyalty and even self-interest, a guy with a sense of humor and a good heart … a mensch-statesman.

When he lost in 1992, the New York Times ran an article about the reactions to his loss. Solarz himself was quoted as saying that one of his few regrets was leaving office before Saddam Hussein did. Indiana Representative Lee Hamilton, another of the very best Congress has produced in the past several decades, is reported to have sent Steve a note saying: "Few events of the last several months have saddened me more than the realization that you may be leaving."

I can’t help but feel the same way right now. But I was cheered by one of the valedictory lines Steve himself offered — because of its characteristic humor and the way it evokes Steve as well as by its message. "I take comfort in Abba Eban’s observation," he said, "That politics is the only profession where there’s life after death." That is, of course, especially true of men whose public contributions were of genuinely historic magnitude and whose private kindnesses have touched thousands.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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