I almost marked the email as spam. When it arrived in my inbox, the subject head had that distinctive indistinctness of junk mail: “Invitation To Testify Before Congress….” Me? Right.
But then I clicked on it anyway. And Congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia’s office was indeed asking me if I would give witness to the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, which he chaired. The congressman had just finished reading my book — a history of the Soviet Jewry movement — and wanted to know if I would talk about the movement’s lessons for political dissidents today. I was going to Washington.
Before I describe the disillusionment that quickly set in as I shifted uncomfortably before the microphone and bright lights, I should say that just taking the train to Union Station, walking up the hill toward Congress and down its marbled halls, was a revelation for me. I’m the son of immigrants who always felt that the place where power happens in this country was very far away from me. I didn’t even apply to Ivy League schools, because they seemed the exclusive domain of children whose parents and grandparents had actually gone to those same schools.
Maybe I’d been naive, but Congress in person just seemed so human-sized. I suppose this helps explain how fallible it can be. But it suddenly seemed that much more extraordinary for its rare moments of transcendence, when good things actually do get done. It made me that much more eager to see close-up how a largely unwelcome issue — human rights — is treated today, given our current national mood of isolation.
At the witness table with me that morning was Natan Sharansky, the famous political prisoner from the Soviet Jewry movement — and the reason that photographers were crouched on the floor in front of us — as well as family members of three very not-famous current political prisoners from China, Bahrain and Vietnam. In front of us was a gallery where House members of the commission, of which there are nearly 100, are supposed to sit. It was almost completely empty.
The only congressmen there were the two chairmen: Wolf, a Republican, and his Democratic counterpart, James McGovern of Massachusetts, along with Chris Smith, a Republican of New Jersey, best known as a staunch social conservative opposed to abortion and stem cell research. On the many empty seats behind them, staffers had propped up large photos of political prisoners and one of Sharansky, just after his release, wearing a gigantic paisley tie and shaking Ronald Reagan’s hand.