Disillusioned on Capitol Hill

Learning Firsthand How Little Congress Cares for Human Rights

Kurt Hoffman/Getty Images

By Gal Beckerman

Published February 03, 2014, issue of February 07, 2014.
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The best the congressmen could offer was when Wolf, just after the Vietnamese mother started crying, looked out into the audience and asked if there was anyone present from the administration. When one young woman sheepishly raised her hand and said she worked at the state department, he scolded her: “Have you been observing all of this? Make sure you record these names so you share it with the secretary.”

Wolf genuinely seemed to care about the stories of misery that were being recounted. But confessing his inability to actually do anything for these prisoners made it all seem like political theater, a chance to make a point about the ineffectiveness of President Obama’s foreign policy. Smith was even more directly political. Turning to Gao’s wife, he complained that he had written a letter to the administration, asking that it meet with her and other relatives of Chinese dissidents. “We haven’t even gotten a response from the White House,” Smith said. “That’s unconscionable to me.” Obama, he said, was acting with “callous indifference” that “enabled dictatorship.” This might be true, but it sure didn’t help the mother worried about her daughter’s breast cancer.

Sharansky talked briefly about how his own travails related to these political prisoners. And I gave a speech about what ethnic communities can learn from the Soviet Jewry movement about how to mobilize and inspire wider interest in what might seem like parochial causes. It fed right into Wolf’s point about the need for activism to happen outside Congress from the ground up.

I wish I had said something different. I wish I had told the congressman that he had misread my book if he thought its message was that there was no role for lawmakers to play when it came to human rights beyond holding hearings in front of a sole C-SPAN camera. After all, one of the great heroes of the Soviet Jewry movement was Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, who did not wait for American Jews to galvanize the issue. He faced all kinds of resistance from Jewish leaders to his idea of making America’s trade relationship with the Soviet Union contingent on its human rights record — what became the Jackson-Vanik amendment. He had to cajole and yell and twist arms like an LBJ. It was largely through this pressure, from the top down, that a constituency eventually formed and became the united front that convinced the rest of Congress to support the amendment.

That was what I learned from my book about how revolutionary policy gets made by those in Congress. They have to extend themselves beyond the House and Senate and try to build a power base in support of a cause, especially when the president — like Richard Nixon then, and Obama now — is resistant to taking up causes.

My day in Congress ended with me wandering around the hallowed halls for a few more hours. I walked into the gallery of the House, which wasn’t in session anymore, and sat down. I was alone in the chamber. And even then the room didn’t feel all that big. I thought about something curious that had happened during the hearing: An aide whispered in Wolf’s ear, and suddenly the congressman announced that a number of parents of Vietnamese political prisoners had shown up on their own and were in the audience. Wolf asked them to stand up and identify themselves. One by one, three fathers stood quietly, and each said his child’s name, overwhelmed, it seemed to me, by his few seconds in the spotlight. Wolf called over to the person from the state department: “Jot down their names, okay?”

I’m sure they were expecting more than that.

Gal Beckerman is the opinion editor of the Forward. Contact him at beckerman@forward.com or on Twitter, @galbeckerman


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