Steve Solarz – An Appreciation

Much has already been written about Steve Solarz and his energy level, his intellect, his commitment to public policy and people, his humanity. Every word of it is true. He was one of the most amazing public servants I ever saw in action, and a very good friend to many of us as well.

It is hard to know where to start in paying tribute to him. One of the most memorable images for anyone who ever worked with him or saw him in action was how, in hearings in the House of Representatives, he used the 5 minutes allocated to him to question a witness. Usually in those 5 minutes he’d work in at least 5 questions, rapid-fire style—to which he expected good, meaningful, substantive answers. And more often than not, he got them. He wasn’t overbearing with witnesses, but he was so dogged in his queries and so clearly sincere in his motivations that most were motivated to be responsive. Incoming members should consider studying tape of how he did it.

As a senior fellow at Brookings, I consistently found him an intellectual inspiration—and even a role model. I was the one who was supposed to be reading books, studying archives, establishing historical analogies, coming up with ideas. But even in retirement (if in fact he ever really retired), he was usually the one reading the big new biography of a great leader, or contemplating the lessons of an earlier era for modern policymakers, or wanting to debate the right policy for how to handle North Korea or Iran or Haiti or Kosovo. These issues were always on his mind, even when on the Solarz tennis court—where the mix of mirthful banter, trash talk, and serious policy debate created a special and unique atmosphere that none of us lucky enough to spend time there will ever forget.

His heart was as pure as they came in the policy world. The Balkans wars and Rwanda genocide of the 1990s bothered him horribly, just as the plight of the Vietnamese boat people, or Cambodian victims of the Khmer Rouge, or Filipino victims of the Marcos regime had propelled him to action in earlier times.

I will always remember playing tennis with him around New Year’s Day 1990. He was just back from a meeting with Zairean President Mobutu Sese Seko at which he pressured the famous kleptocrat over corruption. This part of the world wasn’t even Solarz’s Congressional responsibility or main focus at the time. Indeed, in a region closer to his area of main concern, within a few short months he would be calling for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein based on his horrible treatment of his own people. Solarz’s compassion and commitment to justice, and his policy expertise, knew no bounds. In addition to all the other places already mentioned above, he was of course an enormously important policymaker in regard to East Asia, India, and numerous other places.

I would describe him as one of the great “humanitarian hawks” in the history of the modern U.S. Congress. Humanitarian, in his concern for people around the world, deeply felt and sincere. Hawkish in his Churchillian willingness to do what it took, including the use of military force, not only to defend American strategic interests but to protect innocents around the world.

He was also a remarkable friend. And a committed family man. And simply a great American of our time.