Paul Tsongas: man of substance trudging uphill


February 19, 1992|By ROGER SIMON

CONCORD, N.H. -- At the beginning of every presidential campaign, the press gives its heart to the candidate who runs his campaign the way the reporters would run a campaign: with candor, humor -- and utterly no chance of winning.

Four years ago that candidate was Bruce Babbitt of Arizona. This year it is Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts.

At first ignored by the press, then lionized by the press, Tsongas now is on the threshold of Phase Three: getting savaged by the press.

The growing popular wisdom about Tsongas is that he cannot win a Democratic primary outside of New England. He cannot win in Maryland. He cannot win in the South.

He must, the thinking goes, soon run into the brick wall of reality. Why? This is why:

"Ideas count in America," Tsongas likes to say, "and not 30- or 60-second sound bites. In America if you present a vision, Americans will move to it and embrace it."

And you have to ask yourself: What America is this guy talking about? The one we all live in? The one in which presidential campaigning is reduced to a yearlong TV performance?

In fact he is talking about a different America. He is talking about the America he wants to exist, the America that once existed, the America he thinks he can recapture.

At Daniel Webster College in Nashua, N.H., Tsongas faced a young student who said she trusted nobody. Tsongas looked shocked and then pained as he replied:

"When I was in college, the farthest I had ever been away from home was to go to Annapolis to swim against Navy. A few months later, I was in Ethiopia working for the Peace Corps. Why? Because of a president. A president drew me in. And that's the kind of president I want to be. I want to be the kind of president you can trust."

John Kennedy is the president that drew Paul Tsongas and thousands of others into public service. In 1960, John Kennedy did not promise good times. He asked for sacrifice; he asked Americans to ask themselves what they could do for their country.

In 1976, Jimmy Carter also asked for sacrifice and dedication and commitment. And it worked; he won the election.

But in the '90s? Will it work today? Will it work in an America, as Tsongas says, whose values are often taught not by parents or teachers or clergymen but by the TV tube?

"What are the values we are giving our children?" he asks. "Look at our beer commercials. A society based on those values cannot sustain itself."

Tsongas sees another America. A more serious, hard-working, spiritual America. He sees an America in which the struggle makes the achievement sweet.

"I don't do the middle-class tax cut," he tells audiences, comparing himself to other Democratic candidates in the race. "I don't give tax credits for children. That's walking downhill. It is easy. But it's a rut.

"It's time to walk uphill. It is hard. You sweat. But you get to the top of the mountain."

And what is at the top of the mountain? I suspect for Tsongas it is a view of the next mountain to climb.

But would that be so bad for the rest of us? After years of electing presidents who promised us the stars but gave us deficits, would electing someone who promised us reality be so terrible?

"If you are supporting me you have great courage and no political instinct whatsoever," Tsongas told a crowd in Concord, N.H., at the end of his campaign here. "But I'll take courage!"

Though his speeches are filled with one-liners, they are almost invariably sardonic. He is not a jovial man. He is a serious man running in a serious year. And because he has decided not to sugarcoat what lies ahead for us, that also makes him a lonely man. A man who will not play the game, a man who believes that the unpleasant truth will be more appealing to the voters than the easy lie.

And any candidate who believes that is going to be very lonely indeed.

On the day before the primary election, he asked his supporters in New Hampshire to do a strange thing. Usually you ask your supporters to gather together at a big party and yell their lungs out. Not Paul Tsongas.

"After the results are in, I want you to go into a room in your home and sit down in a chair by yourself," he said, "and I want you to contemplate what you have done. I want you to feel good about yourself. Feel it. Enjoy it. Savor it."

Alone. In your room.

This is a most unusual politician. The unofficial slogan of the Tsongas campaign, written on large banners and displayed at his events, is: "Substance Is Style."

That is, I think, the wrong slogan for Tsongas. It should be: "Substance Is Substance."

And maybe someday we'll all grow up and realize that when it comes to choosing a president substance is what should count.

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