Lowell, Mass. -- As FORMER Sen. Paul Tsongas announced his candidacy for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination in this old mill town of his birth, the VIP section behind him provided an uncommon touch.
The seats customarily occupied at such events by politicians and other glad-handers were filled with small school children, giving gave life to Tsongas' central theme in his long shot bid for the nomination.
"On this journey," he said in a park in the city he helped rejuvenate, "we will reach into the future and commit ourselves to thinking in generations. We are a continuum. Just as we reach back to our ancestors for our fundamental values, so we, as guardians of that legacy, must reach ahead to our children and their children."
Tsongas went on to present his campaign issues -- protection of the environment, national debt reduction, a viable economy, racial and sexual equality -- in terms of the young generation that sat attentively behind him.
As he did so, he chided the last and the present Republican administrations for neglect, but without particular bombast -- a mark of Tsongas' public style ever since he first won local office in 1969.
"This land, this water, this air, this planet, this rain," he said as it dropped on his shoulders, "this is our legacy to our young. Yet the Reagan-Bush years have been a time of cynical avoidance of one environmental issue after another . . . Journey with me to the serenity of leaving to our children a planet in equilibrium."
On the debt, it was more of the same: "Thinking in generations also means enabling our young to have a decent standard of living -- not the Reagan-Bush legacy to our children of an additional $3 trillion of debt. That debt will forever burden and handicap them." And he called President Bush's no-new taxes pledge, leading to more debt, "generationally immoral."
It was a very soft beginning for a presidential campaign in an era when hyperbole and attack have become all too commonplace. And therein could lie whatever appeal this rather unusual presidential hopeful will generate with voters who, for all their cynicism toward politicians, put their own kids first.
Other Democrats have sought, unsuccessfully, to arouse the American public to the argument that the Reagan-Bush policies have self-indulgently deferred the nation's fiscal obligations to future generations.
But Tsongas' strategy of casting his criticism graphically in terms of children deprived and burdened by short-sighted GOP administrations meshes well with his rather benign approach to campaigning.
In some ways his announcement was the familiar liberal litany so regularly and successfully bashed by Republicans as coddling the ne'er-do-wells of society. "On this journey," he said, "we will rediscover the caring and compassion for one another that has been dishonored during the Reagan-Bush years. And in that discovery we will look upon each other as brothers and sisters, as a community which nurtures its young and its ailing and its less fortunate."
But as a self-proclaimed "pro-business liberal," Tsongas has a counter to the Republican assault on Democratic taxers and spenders. A centerpiece of his message is that social spending is dependent on economic growth that must come from a much more cooperative climate between business and labor.
He advocates capital-gains tax cuts for specified long-term growth investment and calls on liberals to abandon their indiscriminate labeling of the GOP as the party of big business and the rich.
Since his departure from the Senate in 1984 and his successful battle against cancer, Tsongas has served on important corporate boards and has come away advocating an industrial policy for the United States, with the federal government working in concert with business and labor for a larger share of international markets.
The conventional wisdom holds that as another Greek-American liberal Democrat from Massachusetts, he is throttled before he starts by the ghost of Michael Dukakis. But the two are miles apart stylistically and temperamentally. A greater problem for Tsongas is likely to be his passive manner at a time the Democratic Party is looking for a charismatic leader to rescue it from its doldrums as another son of Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, did in 1960.
But Tsongas, like JFK, is talking sacrifice, hoping the country, as in 1960, can be cajoled -- softly -- to answer the call.