Martin Peretz ’59 (left) and Stephen Solarz ’62 flank their former professor, Max Lerner.
Martin Peretz ’59 (left) and Stephen Solarz ’62 flank their former professor, Max Lerner.

Stephen Solarz '62: Politician, Diplomat, 

By William Singer ’62

My longtime friend Stephen Solarz ’62, who died on Nov. 29, 2010, was not one of Brandeis’ most distinguished alumni simply because he served for 18 years as a congressman from New York in the U.S. House of Representatives. Instead, what made Steve’s career so noteworthy was that he became a world leader and shaped events around the globe. In his case, the politician became a prominent diplomat and statesman.

Politics was in Steve’s blood even before he arrived at Brandeis in 1958. As head of the student government, he had been the “mayor” of Midwood High School in Brooklyn. As a Brandeis sophomore, he was elected student council vice president. A year later, a shift occurred that had a major impact on his life: He forsook elected politics to become editor of the Justice.

In Brandeis’ early years, there was a sense among students, faculty and administration that we were building something together. We were taught to challenge, to accept little on its face, and to develop and fight for beliefs and positions that we cared about. Central to all of this was the Justice. Steve said serving as editor of the student newspaper gave him the opportunity “to speak truth to power” — a quality that defined his work throughout his life.

When he was first elected to the House in 1974, Steve joined the Foreign Affairs Committee and chaired its subcommittees on Africa, and Asian and Pacific affairs. His colleagues called him the Marco Polo of Congress, as he traveled to hundreds of countries. Instead of the traditional congressional delegation trips, he set up his own itineraries, meeting with heads of state, prime ministers, opposition leaders, refugees in camps, journalists and opinion makers outside of government. Steve wanted to understand the entire political dynamic in each country. For example, while he opposed apartheid in South Africa and was instrumental in abolishing it, he nevertheless arranged to have dinner and spend the night at a prominent Afrikaner farm to better understand the opposing position.

He helped bring democracy to the Philippines and South Korea, and he developed the framework that led to peace and democracy in Cambodia. Through a speech on the House floor, he persuaded many of his Democratic colleagues to adopt the resolution authorizing the use of force in the first Gulf War.

Perhaps his most lasting impact was his work in the Philippines. In typical fashion, Steve sought out and befriended exiled opposition leader Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr., a prominent foe of President Ferdinand Marcos. In June 1983, before Steve’s subcommittee, Ninoy announced that he intended to return to the Philippines; it was an act, in Steve’s words, “of great courage.” Ninoy was assassinated as he stepped off the plane in Manila. Although the U.S. government supported Marcos at the time, Steve traveled to the funeral to show the Filipino people that “there were Americans who shared their anguish over the brutal murder of this charismatic opposition leader,” he said.

Determined “to align U.S. foreign policy with those who were on the front lines of the struggle for democracy in the Philippines,” Steve’s subcommittee held hearings that exposed the widespread corruption of the Marcos regime.

As a result of the facts developed at the hearings, Steve proposed legislation eliminating military assistance to the Philippines, a measure opposed by the Reagan administration. But Steve persisted, and his subcommittee, on a unanimous vote, approved the legislation. That action sent a powerful signal that U.S. support for Marcos was wavering.

In 1986, the people of the Philippines rose up to oppose Marcos during elections. Even though he declared victory, Marcos fled the country following the defection of major elements of the army and Catholic Church. Cory Aquino, Ninoy’s wife, who had run against Marcos, became president. Steve revealed the extravagance of First Lady Imelda Marcos, including her 3,000 pairs of shoes.

Steve’s friend, political scientist Norman Ornstein, tells the story that last year Norman mentioned to his father-in-law and his caregiver, a Filipino woman, that he was going to visit Steve and his wife, Nina, at their home. The caregiver asked, “You mean the Congressman Solarz who helped save my country?”

Steve was buried in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington. He always hoped that his life would make a difference. As I walked among the gravestones of John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster and other greats who made a difference, I knew Steve belonged.

William Singer ’62, a former Chicago alderman and mayoral candidate, is an attorney at Kirkland & Ellis.