Tsongas arrives a suddenly happier warrior

MICHAEL OLESKER

February 20, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

This woman's charging into the crowd like a blocking back. Senator, senator, she cries. The crowd in front of her does not move. The blocking back keeps plugging forward, but Paul Tsongas, chatting and signing autographs yesterday in the middle of Hopkins Plaza, does not hear her.

"Senator, senator," she cries again.

She's waving a piece of paper in her hand. In front of her, Tsongas, fresh from his New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary win, is busy being adored. They want autographs, they want handshakes, they want to tell him about their American dreams that have gone bad the last 10 years.

"Senator, senator," the lady blocking back calls again, and now Tsongas turns around in Hopkins Plaza, and he sees her, and he reaches for her piece of paper.

"Senator," she cries, "can you validate my parking ticket?"

Everybody within hearing range laughs. Can you make jokes like this to a man running for president? Why not, when almost nobody in America has taken Paul Tsongas seriously until now?

Tsongas? Tsk, tsk. He looks like a guy who had to take his own tsister to his tsenior prom. You want looks? He looks like the end product of a wild night of mating between Pat Paulsen and Jiminy Cricket.

"My glasses?" he said to the big downtown lunchtime crowd yesterday. He put the spectacles on his face, and everybody cheered. "People say get a new look," he said. "If I wanted a new look, this would not be it."

What's he doing here? Running for president, yeah, but what's he doing in front of the whole Democratic pack? This is a man who sits on national television and purses his lips between words, as though he's either subduing a smile or sucking a lemon. He clears his throat between paragraphs. He's the anti-charismatic.

"Oh, yeah, charisma," said a fellow named William Donald Schaefer, standing along the edge of the Hopkins Plaza action yesterday. They used to say the same thing about Schaefer -- no charisma -- until he turned it inside out during the years at City Hall when everybody loved him.

"Let me tell you something," said the governor of Maryland. "Give me a guy who hasn't got charisma, but has basic ideas."

Then Schaefer said not to pay him any mind. "I'm here informally," he said. "I thought I could sneak in. I just want to know what Tsongas would do for cities like this."

For the last 11 years, the cities like this have suffered malignant neglect. You couldn't have built a Hopkins Plaza, one of the early symbols of the thing we used to call the great Baltimore renaissance, without help from Washington.

But the last 11 years, the Reagan-Bush years, were a sneer to urban America, a willful disdain of people the Republicans figured wouldn't vote for them anyway, so why waste their money?

"Your harbor," Paul Tsongas said now, as the big crowd jostled him and he tried to chat over their voices. "That's the example of what can happen to cities. We've got to get private money to invest, but we've got to give them incentives to do it."

"I care about cities," he said. "George Bush has a man who understands cities, named Jack Kemp, but Bush doesn't understand cities himself. I do. I grew up in a city, and I'll die there. These are my people."

It was an easy sort of an answer, but it's what the president deserves. It was a sound bite sort of an answer, but that's what we get as the primary season arrives.

The politicians have all learned to talk in shorthand. Set-up, punch line. Set-up, punch line. "Bush said he'd be the environmental president," said Tsongas. A ripple of laughter. "I rest my case."

Also, though, there was this: an 85-page book, called "A Call to Economic Arms," which Tsongas wrote and his aides handed out yesterday. It's not something you fit into a sound bite. It's a plan for the future, but it's also a history of how we got into this mess.

"I like what he says," declared Richard Foutz, 31. He stood a few yards from Tsongas and said he's been out of work for four weeks now. "He's not as caught up in pandering to the middle class. A lot of us who used to feel middle class don't feel that way any more."

He was talking about proposed middle class tax cuts: Bush likes them, Tsongas says no. Such talk is a roll of the dice for any politician.

"It comes to a 97-cent a day tax cut," said Tsongas. "Then Bush talks about a tax cut if you have children. Where do you get the money for that? You borrow it. From who? From our children. Bush has this laundry list of tax credits, of give-aways. But you drain the treasury, and you leave this massive debt to our children."

Tsongas addressed the crowd for about 15 minutes yesterday. Then he began making his way from Hopkins Plaza to a van waiting for him on Baltimore Street. It was maybe a 75-yard walk, but it took 45 minutes to complete.

The crowd surged around him. He signed autographs, and he talked to people one at a time. A guy named Wayne Mihalik lost a hardware store on Eastern Avenue. He said people came in and asked to borrow tools because they had no money to buy them. Tsongas put his hand on Mihalik's arm, and Mihalik's eyes began to brim.

"I know," said Tsongas. "I lived through that kind of thing."

The country's living through it again. For a man fresh from victory in New Hampshire, yesterday's visit to downtown Baltimore must have been pretty gratifying. The crowd was big, and it was enthusiastic. Tsongas told self-deprecating jokes about his own looks, and people laughed. He told jokes about George Bush, and they laughed louder.

There are 12 days left until Marylanders go to the polls, and Paul Tsongas must love all the laughter, even though it's an ironic sound for a fellow who's finally beginning to be taken seriously.

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