The late Paul Tully played big-league politics ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL

GERMOND & WITCOVER

September 26, 1992|By GERMOND & WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Mothers don't raise their sons to be political operatives. Running campaigns is considered sort of a grubby business.

But it doesn't have to be, as Paul Tully, who died in Little Rock the other night, demonstrated with such zest and gusto in campaign after campaign.

Mr. Tully was indeed one of a kind, a big man with large appetites for food and drink and conversation into the wee hours, usually but not always about politics.

He would swap stories by the hour, gesturing expansively, using extravagant language, punctuating his conversation by asking repeatedly and rhetorically, "Awright," to be certain his listeners were still with him. His syntax, or lack of same, was notorious and could be baffling to those who met him for the first time and hadn't learned to decipher the waves of the arms.

But he was capable of making insightful points in clear terms. This, for example, is Mr. Tully talking after the 1988 campaign about the growing role of the press as a moral arbiter in American politics:

"Quantity changes quality. There are now so many outlets, so much coverage and so much inquiry . . . you are doing your work around the beast. The problem used to be how to feed it and feed it in a way that's conveying information that you want -- your message, right?

"It's a delivery mechanism, got a big mouth and power, but how to feed it? . . . Well, now it's developed taste and standards and spits stuff back at you.

"It's not just the size of the thing. It's a new player that's got a very specific kind of appetite. It's got even more demands. And it's got its new, evolved self-defined role. 'We've got standards and [if] that little [bleep] Quayle don't make the standards, we're going to rip his head off.' "

For more than 20 years, he steadfastly pursued the same goal: He wanted to elect a Democratic president who could do the things he thought needed to be done to establish some equity in our society.

His preference was for the most liberal Democrat in the field -- a predilection that meant he worked at various times for Robert F. Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, Morris Udall, Edward M. Kennedy, Walter F. Mondale, Gary Hart and Michael S. Dukakis.

In a sense, Bill Clinton, for whom Mr. Tully was working when he died at 48, was an odd fit because the Arkansas governor was so determined not to be seen as the most liberal candidate in the field.

At the outset, he was wary about the governor. But we can remember him standing in the back of the room in Chicago late in 1991 listening to Mr. Clinton deliver the speech to Democratic state party chairmen that made him the early favorite of the insiders.

When Mr. Clinton finished and the audience erupted into applause, Mr. Tully turned to a reporter friend, grinning broadly and said: "Now that was a general election message. That was big-league politics."

If he had any personal agenda, it was a secret well-kept from his friends. Mr. Tully, the son of working-class parents who went to Yale and University of Pennsylvania law school, then chose politics over the law, was not a man you could see taking some cushy spot in a Democratic administration. It was the business of getting a Democrat there that obsessed him.

Mr. Tully was intrigued by the process and how it could be refined. Over the past four years, as political director for the Democratic National Committee, he had focused on building "the coordinated campaign" -- one in which presidential and state candidates performed many functions jointly -- in as many states as possible to make the DNC a serious player in electing a Democratic president.

He had also become fascinated by computers. Returning to Washington late one night this spring after seeing his favorite Red Sox defeat the Orioles, he headed for the office to "run some numbers" -- meaning to test his theories on where the votes might be in this campaign, depending on how it played out.

Mr. Tully was not a one-dimensional political fanatic. He made a point of getting the Tuesday editions of the New York Times so he could read the science section.

He listened to classical music while cooking for himself at his apartment on Capitol Hill. He loved to talk about sports and movies. But mostly Paul Tully played big league politics.

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