By Shaun Tandon
WASHINGTON, November 30, 2010 (AFP) – Stephen Solarz, the globetrotting US congressman who exposed Imelda Marcos’ notorious shoe stash and passionately supported India before it was popular in Washington, has died at age 70.
Solarz, a Democrat who served nine terms representing New York in Congress, died Monday in Washington after a battle with esophageal cancer, his wife Nina said.
Solarz was elected in 1974 from a heavily Jewish district in Brooklyn and quickly turned his attention to foreign affairs, saying that winning aid for Israel was the equivalent for him of public works projects for other lawmakers.
The congressman was often tipped to become secretary of state and traveled as widely as one, playing an outsized role in US diplomacy. Despite his party, he helped spearhead president George H.W. Bush’s bid in 1991 to win Congress’ authorization of the Gulf War.
Solarz helped turn US opinion against ally Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled the Philippines for two decades until he was ousted in 1986. On a tour of Malacanang Palace in Manila, Solarz was dumbfounded by the Marcos family’s extravagance.
Noticing some of first lady Imelda Marcos’ 3,000 shoes laid out in racks, Solarz quipped: “Compared to Imelda, Marie Antoinette was a bag lady.”
For his support of the democracy movement, new president Corazon Aquino hailed Solarz as the Philippines’ Marquis de Lafayette, referring to the French officer who helped the colonial United States win independence from Britain.
Solarz was also a forceful advocate for India, serving as a lonely voice in Congress when relations between the world’s two largest democracies were estranged during the Cold War.
Nicknaming himself “the congressman from Bombay” and sporting jackets in the style of India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Solarz was unflustered by New Delhi’s nuclear weapons program and opposed military aid to rival Pakistan.
Solarz saw India as a natural ally of isolated Israel and played a behind-the-scenes role nurturing the now friendly relationship between New Delhi and the Jewish state.
The United States’ own relations with India have warmed markedly since the late 1990s.
Solarz also met undemocratic leaders, including Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. In 1980, Solarz became the first US official to met with communist North Korea’s founder Kim Il-Sung.
In an account of the trip that may still reverberate amid the latest crisis with North Korea, Solarz said that North Koreans needed more exposure to Americans and different points of view.
Kim’s belief in the reunification of North and South Korea was “not just verbal but visceral,” Solarz wrote in a report.
Solarz also played a key role in stepping up pressure on South Africa to end apartheid and in the negotiations that ended Cambodia’s civil war in 1991. He later served as the US special envoy on Cambodia.
Despite lavishing attention to foreign nations, Solarz failed to ensure steady backing from New York’s political elite who divided up his district ahead of the 1992 election. Solarz failed to secure his party’s nomination to represent a new, largely Hispanic district.
President Bill Clinton later named Solarz to become ambassador to India. But the nomination was derailed by a scandal in which Solarz wrote hundreds of overdraft checks from the House of Representatives bank.
Solarz was never charged but his wife pleaded guilty.
“I may not have much influence in Brooklyn,” Solarz said in 1991, according to The Wall Street Journal. “But they think I’m very important in Mongolia.”