WASHINGTON — Washington. When Paul Tsongas announced for president yesterday, I remembered another rainy rally in Massachusetts, when Fritz Mondale flew in a week before the 1984 election. Despite the opinion polls, there were still glimmers of Democratic hope here and there; one was the fact that the turnout for Mr. Mondale on Boston Common was double that for President Reagan the day before.
Boston's biggest politicians were there, in high form. Ted Kennedy and Tip O'Neill seemed to think that if they bawled loud enough, they might turn the election around by sheer volume. Then, suddenly, with the loudspeakers still quivering, a hush fell across the crowd of 40,000. Paul Tsongas was about to speak.
He was then the junior senator from Massachusetts. What he said was only a footnote on that day of presidential politicking. But the quiet way he spoke, and the way those thousands stopped their yelling to listen, made us realize we were hearing somebody special. At that time, Mr. Tsongas had just made another announcement -- that he was leaving politics after two terms in the House and one in the Senate. His doctors had told him he had cancer. He had decided to live the rest of his short life back home in Lowell with his family. The stillness of the crowd was a way of showing respect for him and his decision.
Now, at 50, Mr. Tsongas is not only living, he is back in politics. He says he has licked the lymphoma that was expected to end his life too soon. He obviously considers his six-year hiatus to be an asset rather than a liability, because rather than picking up where he left off, he is trying to step higher.
Some 2,000 people stood in a rainstorm to listen to him yesterday in Lowell. They and watchers far away were wondering what else he would say to set him apart from other potential Democratic candidates. His first statement was already made: While those others hang back taking more polls, chewing over whether to try this time or next, tracking economic statistics for a hint that President Bush might be vulnerable, Mr. Tsongas has gone ahead.
He is not deterred by what Michael Dukakis' defeat in 1988 says about presidential prospects next year for another Greek-American liberal Democrat from Massachusetts. Ideally,
ethnicity and geography do not matter in American politics, but whether Mr. Tsongas acknowledges it or not, Democratic primary voters will remember the 1988 outcome against the same George Bush.
What Mr. Tsongas has been through surely gives him a different perspective on taking chances, about the relative importance of an election. He has faced the prospect of losing more than an election, and come out a winner. Contemplating early death helps a man realize how short life can be -- how short it inevitably is, for even the healthiest of us.
Some of that seemed to come through in his remarks to that home-town crowd yesterday. Some of the would-be contenders this time could make an announcement speech and leave an ignorant witness wondering whether they were Democrats or Republicans. There was no doubt about Paul Tsongas.
''America is hope,'' he said. ''It is compassion. It is excellence. It is valor. It is humanity.'' He might have added that it is cliches, too; no party identity showing there. But there was more.
He said Mr. Bush had squandered that American heritage. He accused the president of being ''generationally immoral'' for saying ''read my lips, no new taxes.'' What that has done, he said, is lay off today's debt onto tomorrow's taxpayers, and make this the world's greatest debtor nation.
Doug Wilder, are you listening? Lloyd Bentsen? Al Gore? The first man in has set a precedent, cleared the way for Democrats to campaign as Democrats. It is not necessary to agree with him to thank him for making that socially acceptable, to respect him for going head-on against a president whose post-Desert Storm popularity rating is still near record highs.
The sages who always micro-examine a candidate's negatives mention lingering questions about how fully Mr. Tsongas has recovered from cancer. He swam the butterfly stroke in a national meet the other day to demonstrate his vigor. But Franklin Roosevelt demonstrated years ago that perfect health is not required in a president.
Indeed, Roosevelt's life after polio showed us that confronting and surviving personal crisis can make a man stronger than he would ever have been otherwise. For almost 70 years, the Democrats have done best when they remember FDR and what he stood for. Paul Tsongas may have that in mind.