New US House Foreign Affairs Chairman Moves Out From Behind The Scen

By Erica Werner

Associated Press Worldstream
May 19, 2008 Monday 2:00 PM GMT

Lawmaker Howard Berman, the new U.S. House of Representatives Foreign
Affairs Committee chairman picks up his own dry cleaning and drives
his own car.

It is a self-sufficiency that Berman has carefully nurtured over his
13 terms in Congress. Now that he has ascended to one of the most
influential posts on Capitol Hill, he still rejects the trappings of
power, and prefers to keep operating as a behind-the-scenes player.

Berman’s committee has oversight over policies in Iraq, Afghanistan
and the rest of the globe’s hotspots. He was in Israel and Iraq
over the weekend with the leader of the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi,
on his first overseas trip as chairman.

In Washington, he has thrived on an understated, collaborative
approach. His leadership style is far different from that of his
predecessor, California Democrat Tom Lantos, Enhanced Coverage
LinkingTom Lantos, -Search using: Biographies Plus News News, Most
Recent 60 Days who died of cancer in February. As Congress’ only
Holocaust survivor, Lantos’ personal history, dignified bearing and
eloquent oratory made him one of Congress’ most recognizable figures.

Berman, by comparison, is unprepossessing. His graying, curly hair
is rumpled. His speaking style is halting and thoughtful. He does
not have a press secretary.

A photo in Berman’s office attests to the fact that he visited a grand
cathedral in St. Petersburg, Russia wearing a Hawaiian print shirt.

"He combined a real passion with a tremendous eloquence," Berman
said of Lantos. "That’s just not my strong suit. I’m more of an
inside animal."

Berman makes up for his lack of style with substance. He is
praised for a piercing intellect, keen memory and grasp of arcane
topics. His recent legislative efforts included reforms to America’s
byzantine patent system. He also proposed removing apartheid-era visa
restrictions against Nelson Mandela and expanding President George
W. Bush’s foreign aid program for HIV/AIDS victims.

When Lantos was Foreign Affairs chairman, he presided over dramatic
hearings and votes. He denounced Yahoo Inc. executives as moral pygmies
for cooperating with Beijing and he passed a controversial resolution
condemning the World War I-era killings of Armenians as genocide.

Berman’s goals seem dull by comparison: Regularly completing routine
but necessary legislation authorizing State Department programs,
rebuilding support for foreign assistance and public diplomacy,
addressing nuclear proliferation, examining dependence on Middle
East oil.

Berman’s most high-profile outing to date was an April hearing on
Iraq. An early Iraq war supporter who stuck behind it far longer than
most Democrats, Berman tried to draw out his witnesses, Gen. David
Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, on how to effectively
withdraw troops if U.S. voters choose that approach in November.

When Petraeus and Crocker demurred, Berman remarked, "Well, then I’m
not going to beat that horse anymore," and changed topics.

Berman does not support the firm withdrawal deadlines backed by many
of his Democratic colleagues. He says he would never have supported
the war knowing what he knows now, but blames himself, not the Bush
administration, for making an error in judgment.

"The lesson learned for me was challenge yourself and your own
predispositions more on some of these things, and challenge the
evidence more. I wasn’t sufficiently skeptical," Berman said.

Outside of Washington, Berman had his fair share of political
scrapes. In 1980, he made a grab for the speakership of the California
Assembly but was outfoxed by Willie Brown, who went on to become
California’s longest-serving Assembly speaker and mayor of San
Francisco. In 2001, he drew ire when his congressional district was
redrawn in a way seen by some Latinos as diluting Hispanic voting
power. Berman was able to emerge from the episode with strong Latino
support due to his long record as a champion of farmworker and
immigrant rights.

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