Obituary: Ted Weiss

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The Independent Online
Theodor Seymour Weiss, politician, born Gava Hungary 17 September 1927, married 1958 Zelda Prensky (two sons; marriage dissolved), 1980 Sonya Hoover, died New York City 14 September 1992.

TED WEISS was, until his death at the age of 64 last week, the member of the US House of Representatives who most unambiguously represented 'liberalism' in the American meaning of that term.

Weiss held the House seat for the Upper West Side of Manhattan, New York, which is home to tens of thousands of New Yorkers of many races and ethnicities who still believe that government can - and should - work to promote social and economic equality as well as international peace and harmony.

Weiss died of heart failure - he had a heart bypass operation 10 years ago - the night before an election to decide whether he was to remain the standard-bearer of the Democratic Party for his district, which includes Columbia University and a huge proportion of professional Manhattanites. The election, which is for party preselection and is called a 'primary election', was held anyway and Weiss won 88 per cent of the vote posthumously.

Weiss's constituents may be among the most left-of-centre of any district in the US, but that didn't make it easy for him to be the politician he was. The Democratic Party candidate Bill Clinton espouses policies of government help for social causes and moderation in the use of US power on the international stage. But Weiss went much further than that. He pushed his positions even when President Ronald Reagan had convinced many Americans that 'liberals' were responsible for subverting the Marlboro Man version of the American Dream. Reagan saw that dream as macho, individualist to the point where accepting government funds made you a pariah, and fundamentally social-Darwinist. Weiss fought the 'Reagan revolution' at every turn, seeking to preserve or enhance programmes that promoted social equality and civil rights. He was at the forefront of an effort to impeach President Reagan for invading Grenada.

In earlier battles he had vigorously opposed the US war against Vietnam, fought for compensation of US soldiers poisoned in that war by Agent Orange, was a lonely US voice against Indonesia for its bloody annexation of East Timor, and he was a champion of peasants' rights in countries from Guatemala to China.

But Weiss was no 1960s-era teenage leftist. He was a Hungarian Jew who came to the US to escape Nazi tyranny in 1938 when he was 10 years old. He was a broadcaster for the US Armed Forces Radio Service during the Second World War and went to Hiroshima shortly after the A-bomb destroyed the city. 'We were patriots,' his close friend Dudley Gaffin recalled, 'but that experience made us anti-war for life.' On a scholarship for returning GIs, Weiss graduated from law school at Syracuse University.

He began his political career by winning a seat on the New York City Council in 1961, inspired by a campaign waged by President Roosevelt's wife Eleanor to demolish the corrupt New York Democratic Party machine run by the 'boss' Carmine De Sapio. Weiss hung a photo of Eleanor Roosevelt in his office through his eight terms in Congress.

The reform movement that brought Weiss to power was powered by the white, mostly Jewish, mostly middle-class politicos who have represented much of New York since the 1960s, until the more-recent ascendancy of African-American and Hispanic politicians in the city.

As a politician Weiss always took his stands on principle, out of a conviction that US society should work to promote every cause that advances enfranchisement and the power of the people.

In the New York City Council in the 1960s he fought to rescind cabaret licensing laws that had cut short the career of the satirist Lenny Bruce. He wrote the city's atypically-tough gun control legislation. He co-sponsored city gay-rights laws, and, when he was elected to Congress in 1977, he moved to make the same laws apply nationally. He led the Congressional campaign for spending more US government funds for treatment of Aids, faster approval of HIV-fighting drugs, and to include women with Aids in the national treatment programmes. He tried to stop Reagan and President George Bush from funding the Nicaraguan 'contras', the goon squads of the El Salvadoran Army, and the biggest-ticket items on the Pentagon's wish-list.

Nearly 2,000 mourners came to Weiss's funeral service, including the Mayor of New York, David Dinkins, Congressional leaders, the Governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, and the former Republican Mayor of New York John Lindsay. Dinkins, New York's first African-American mayor, said: 'Ted Weiss did not act as the conscience of America. He was the conscience of America.'

(Photograph omitted)