Tsongas broke the mold of usuality in politics

RUSSELL BAKER

March 17, 1992|By Russell Baker

WHAT WAS interesting about Paul Tsongas was how uninteresting he was. This raised a happy possibility. For years presidential politics had been a closed science, which is to say, everything that could be learned about it had been learned long, long ago. It was a finished system whose mechanics were so thoroughly understood that it was left basically in the hands of engineers.

The engineers, usually professionals without political philosophy, created and operated the painted talking dummies which, as had been scientifically demonstrated, made the only plausible or, to use the professional jargon, "electable" candidates.

As illustrated most recently in Bush campaigns, the engineers take polls to find out what the public wants to hear, then build the desired noises into their creation. ("Message: I care.") Since they are creating an image and not portraying a human being, they garnish it with vivid pictures staged to bemuse vast numbers of entertainment-glutted people prone to instant boredom.

The result is to make the modern presidential campaign seem as depressingly inevitable as a Sunday afternoon in February. The thing is all inescapable, mind-numbing, soul-grinding usualness.

There are the usual candidates with the usual charisma making the usual sounds in response to the usual polls while being subjected to the usual analysis from the usual media oracles who, having consulted the usual engineers, come to the usual conclusion that the most usual candidate in the pack will prevail as usual.

No wonder fewer people vote in each passing election. The usuality of the business is so deadening to the senses that people tend to forget that what's really going on is not just a performance by the usual suspects but also a vital struggle to decide who gets the lion's share of the national purse.

The unusualness of Mr. Tsongas threatened to let fresh air into this year's proceedings, for he was an insult to every engineer's idea of what a candidate must look like, sound like and be like. Telegenically, for example, he was out of the question.

Since 1960 when the Kennedy people transformed the churchly word "charisma" into a tacky synonym for "glamour," there had never been a candidate with less of the holy stuff of celebritude than Paul Tsongas.

He looked like a professional mourner. His voice broke in the wrong places, his eyes rolled at the wrong time, his smile was a catastrophe, a smile he might have bought from a shady used-smile dealer.

As if that weren't bad enough, he had had cancer. Cancer! We were scarcely a generation away from a time when cancer was such an unspeakable word that Americans wouldn't let obituary writers reveal that next-of-kin had died of it.

In 1976 a political reporter dismissed Morris Udall's presidential candidacy by saying, "America isn't ready to be governed by a one-eyed divorced Mormon." Now Mr. Tsongas was asking America to accept cancer.

Defying engineering, Mr. Tsongas's early successes provided a little optimism about a political system that seemed in danger of mummification. Perhaps there was more to making a president than the engineers suspected. If Soviet communism could collapse in an afternoon like the one-hoss shay, might American politics also slough off the old usual ways?

The answer seems to be no. Bill Clinton's successes these days seem to bear us relentlessly back toward usuality. He is the classic engineering product: a smile he must have been born with, seductive Southern accent, skill in the usual political mechanics admired by the kind of reporters whose enthusiasm can help turn the usual candidate into a "front-runner" fat with headlines.

Just now, for instance, tons of press ink suggest he has the cunning to bring black voters and lower-income white voters into a winning coalition for Democrats.

Maybe he does. Still it sounds like the usual engineering explanation why the usual mechanics work better than a "vision thing" for getting to the White House.

It would have been high sport watching the Republicans' masterful well-poisoning engineers wrestle with the difficulty of designing commercials to destroy square, upright, uncharismatic Tsongas.

Too bad to miss that, but usuality seems about to deaden the air again, as usual. As Damon Runyon noted, "The race may not always be to the swift nor the victory to the strong, but that's the way to bet it."

Russell Baker writes an unusual column for the New York Times.

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