WASHINGTON -- There was appropriate irony in the fact that when Paul Tsongas died the other day at 55 the political focus was on the second inaugural of President Clinton. It was not the first time the expansive politician from Arkansas had overshadowed Mr. Tsongas.
He should not be allowed to pass into political history, however, without more attention being paid. He was one of those rare politicians who had a significant influence on the national debate without ever holding a significant center of national power.
Mr. Tsongas made a start in local politics in Lowell, Massachusetts, and served a couple of terms in the House of Representatives and one in the Senate before retiring in 1984 to deal with cancer.
His 1978 campaign for the Senate set him apart. As a relatively obscure congressman competing with two rivals with statewide name recognition, Mr. Tsongas was an underdog for the Democratic nomination to challenge the Republican incumbent, Edward W. Brooke. Nor was he helped by the fact that he had a name difficult to pronounce and a reserved, almost diffident, public persona.
But Mr. Tsongas broadcast television commercials showing putative voters trying to deal with his name. They were clever enough to capture the public fancy and give him the name recognition he needed.
Then he followed the highly unusual strategy of simply ignoring his rivals and running spots of himself talking directly into the camera about his view on issues. He had learned an important lesson that seems to elude most politicians -- by lowering your own voice, you can persuade voters it is worth hearing what you have to say.
A re-examined life
In his first Senate term he discovered that he was suffering a life-threatening disease and needed to re-examine how he spent his time and cared for his family. So he chose not to run for re-election.
By 1991 his cancer appeared to be a thing of the past, and he joined a long list of obscure Democrats willing to run against the apparently invulnerable President George Bush while the stronger possibilities -- Dick Gephardt, Bill Bradley, Al Gore -- chose to remain on the sidelines.
It was thought that Mr. Tsongas might be a factor in the New Hampshire primary, because he came from the state next door (( and was better known there than such alien figures as the governor of Arkansas and the senators from Nebraska (Bob Kerrey) and Iowa (Tom Harkin). And he won that primary, although the story was Mr. Clinton's ''comeback kid'' rise from the ashes of controversy to finish second.
The significant thing about the Tsongas candidacy, however, was not that he won but how he won. Rather than talking down to the voters, he talked sensibly about issues. An 85-page ''Call to Economic Arms'' became the centerpiece of his campaign.
A flood of questions
The voters responded with remarkable interest. There is a vivid memory, for example, of about 600 people showing up on a cold Sunday afternoon at Daniel Webster College. Mr. Tsongas spoke for 35 to 40 minutes, then opened the floor to questions. They came in a flood for more than two hours, and not more than a dozen of the 600 people left.
His campaign demonstrated that the voters of 1992 were alarmed enough about the economy to give a genuine hearing to the politicians and perhaps even trust them to deal with the causes of their alarm. So it was all year -- turnout in the presidential election rose to its highest level since 1960.
The Tsongas early success also taught a lesson that Mr. Clinton immediately understood and converted to his own use. His promise of change could be effective only if voters were willing to credit politicians with any ability to improve their lives.
And, although that 1992 campaign now seems to have vanished in the smoke of history, Paul Tsongas had shown that a politician could earn just such trust if he talked sense to his constituents.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 1/24/97