Won his letter at Dartmouth in the 1960s...

PAUL TSONGAS

March 16, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN

PAUL TSONGAS won his letter at Dartmouth in the 1960s swimming the breaststroke. He swam the breaststroke when his "masters' medley" relay team set a national record recently.

So why does he swim the butterfly in his campaign commercials?

Because the breaststroke doesn't look as physically demanding as the butterfly. The whole point of the commercials is to dispel any notion that his lymphatic cancer has left him less vigorous than a president ought to be.

This is not the first time that swimming as symbol has been used in presidential campaigning. Franklin D. Roosevelt was shown in newsreels playing rugged water football when he was running for president in 1932 and later while he was in the White House. This was to dispel rumors that he was physically disabled by his infantile paralysis.

In fact he was somewhat disabled. The newsreels were a little misleading. They were taken at the pool at Warm Springs, Ga., a health spa Roosevelt owned and to which he regularly went for treatment.

His normal use of the pool was performing assisted therapeutic exercises, which did not make him look vigorous. His swimming style was not exactly photogenic, either. He called it "modified Australian crawl." It could just as correctly have been called "modified dog paddle." Hence, the water football, in which manly shouts, splashing and thrashing hid his disability and his unathletic style.

Never underestimate the importance of symbol in politics. The symbolism of Tsongas' courage and endurance -- and willingness to submit to experimental treatment in dire straits -- seems to me to suggest a reason for voting for him. I'm surprised he has not used his disease and treatment as an argument for an experimental policy to deal with the nation's stricken economy. By arguing for a pretty routine approach to the problem, he throws away the meaning of his own personal story.

Mr. Tsongas has misused another symbol in his campaign. To make the point that Bill Clinton panders to voters, telling them whatever he thinks they want to hear, Tsongas holds up a toy animal that he says represents Clinton. He calls it a "pander bear."

But it is not a stuffed toy panda. A Panda is black and white. (A panda is not technically a bear, by the way, but an Asian raccoon.) (Sometimes, even to myself, I sound like Cliff Claven, the trivia-collecting windbag postman of "Cheers.") What Tsongas holds up is a Teddy Bear.

Thus it's a spoiled symbol. Teddy bears are cute and cuddly. People like them. Tsongas is winning votes, subliminally, for Clinton.

The Teddy bear actually has a political connection. (Oh, no!) It was named after Theodore Roosevelt. (Shut up, Cliff!) He was a famous big game hunter. (I can't control myself!) After he left the White House he was photographed sparing a cub's life, which

led to this naming of the child's stuffed toy.

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