Tsongas Chic Ushers in a New Political Era

GEORGE F. WILL

February 13, 1992|By GEORGE F. WILL

Manchester, New Hampshire -- For at least this 15 minutes, the great political fact is: Tsongas Chic. This means that an era which began in 1960 is dead as a doornail.

The modern puffing-up of the presidency, and the attendant giddiness of great expectations for government, began 32 years ago with the dizzy romanticizing of a presidential candidate, a Democratic senator from Massachusetts. Today Paul Tsongas, former Democratic senator from Massachusetts, is prospering, which proves the end of the ''heroic era'' of presidential politics: 1960-1992, R.I.P.

Mr. Tsongas began this race as the tortoise that made the rest of the field -- tortoises all -- look like hares. But as New Hampshire prepares to vote, his improbable worry is that his campaign may have, as the saying goes, ''peaked too soon.''

If he fades this week, then he was, as someone coldly said, the ''pet rock'' of the political season, a mere absurdist novelty. He may be enjoying the 15 minutes of fame that supposedly is every American's entitlement.

But he also is proving that recessions, which can be good for the economy by wringing out fat, also can be good for politics by making people receptive to someone who says things such as: The school day is too short and so is the school year, and federal aid should be linked to longer school days and years and to improved test results for all seniors.

It is said that Mr. Tsongas is not telegenic. True, he doesn't look or talk like an anchorman. But Americans, who are not ninnies, would not trust an anchorman to run a car wash, never mind a country. Question: Who has received more votes than anyone in history? Right: Richard Nixon, whose problems with television were Tsongasian.

Here in New Hampshire, where retail politics is necessary and Mr. Tsongas is a neighbor, he has demonstrated that familiarity can breed respect if you say things such as: It is ''pandering'' to talk of a tax cut for what Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton calls ''the forgotten middle class.'' (Forgotten? no one talks of anything else.) And a targeted capital-gains cut would be wise.

In the 40 years since the New Hampshire primary became a big deal, there has never been a campaign quite like Mr. Tsongas', with such a high ratio of steak to sizzle. Mr. Tsongas has inflicted his 85-page issues book on 140,000 people. And still they are not hostile. Amazing.

He is proving an important point, which is: Americans often do not like a person just because they like the way he talks. Rather, they like the way he talks because they like him, and they like him because of what he says. Their liking may be mysterious, even to them, but it has something to do with the person's authenticity.

John Wayne played many characters, from the young and lean Ringo Kid to the old and ample Rooster Cogburn, but Wayne always played himself. In movie after movie, Jimmy Stewart did the best Jimmy Stewart imitation anyone ever saw. Walter Cronkite's inflections were, well, Cronkitean. Mr. Tsongas, the rumpled scold with the arid wit, is doing vintage Tsongas.

How vintage? On June 14, 1980, Sen. Tsongas addressed the convention of the Americans for Democratic Action. The ADA had once been a vibrant part of a Democratic Party that was brimming with vitality. By 1980 the ADA was just a little liberal ginger group and Senator Tsongas' subject was why it had withered.

Few young people were present, and Mr. Tsongas told the ADA that it was no longer fashionable to be liberal. The 1960s, with an unpopular war, an uprising against segregation and an economic surplus to spend on social programs, were years ''well-suited to the liberal rationale.'' But young voters of 1980 had not grown up reading about America's effortless economic abundance. Rather, he said, they had read about ''the demise of the auto industry's capacity to compete internationally.'' Sound familiar?

Just as in 1992 he tartly says that too many liberals like employment but not employers, in 1980 he said liberals should not take economic growth for granted and should take seriously the problems of the private sector. When today he says ''I have no problem with greed if it works,'' he is in his 12th year of campaigning to connect liberalism with the exigencies of

capitalism.

Since he delivered that ADA speech, his party has lost three presidential elections. In those elections the Democrats' won-lost record by states (counting the District of Columbia) is 20 wins and 133 losses. Their electoral-vote record is 173 won and 1,440 lost. Democrats have become the Cleveland Indians of presidential politics and have no standing to condescend to Mr. Tsongas, who may yet be the Minnesota Twins -- from worst to first -- of the New Hampshire field.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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