Obituary: Paul Tsongas

Paul Tsongas was a political oddity, an entrant in fiercely competitive US presidential politics who actually raised the standards of that notoriously dirty trade. The year was 1991, and the incumbent Republican George Bush was at the height of his post-Gulf-War popularity, seemingly so certain of re-election that no Democrat dared challenge him. But that May, amid little fanfare, one finally did - an uncelebrated former Massachusetts Senator named Paul Efthemios Tsongas.

At first the very notion defied logic. Tsongas had left Congress seven years earlier, he held no elected office in his native Massachusetts, and his health was uncertain. On a personal charisma scale of one to ten, he rated minus three, and his policy message might have been calculated to repel support. Most candidates promise good things, but he offered pain: no gaudy tax cuts, and a shift in resources from consumption to investment, all in the name of balancing the budget and saving the country from financial ruin.

But slowly Tsongas caught on, even if it long seemed he would finish no better than a worthy second to the Democrats' early-season sensation, the youthful Governor of Arkansas. But, as 1992 began, scandals of sex and alleged Vietnam draft-dodging erupted around Bill Clinton. Tsongas edged ahead and even won the traditionally crucial New Hampshire primary. Of course it could not last. Clinton recovered in the Southern primaries which immediately followed, and, after resounding defeats in Illinois and Michigan in mid-March, Tsongas withdrew, both physically and financially exhausted.

But his impact lasted far longer. Indirectly, he heightened the impression of domestic policy fecklessness which would cost George Bush a second term. Then there is the memory of Tsongas' uncomplaining courage in dealing with an illness that would have ended most men's careers, if not their lives. He left the Senate in 1985, having served just one term, when he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a mostly fatal cancer. Tsongas instead underwent an untested bone marrow transplant procedure which, though the cancer recurred later, would prolong his life for a dozen years. Never did he allow invasive and painful therapy to interfere with his public life.

And that austere, anti-populist platform of 1992 is today more relevant than ever. With Warren Rudman, his Republican Senate colleague from New Hampshire, and the Wall Street banker Peter Peterson, he founded the Concord Coalition pressure group to continue the fight for a balanced budget. If that cause has now been embraced by both Republicans and President Clinton, and the need for cuts in middle-class entitlement programmes has been accepted by both sides, much of the moral credit belongs to Paul Tsongas.

The son of a Greek immigrant, he betrayed few of the characteristics usually associated with that race. He was dispassionate, anything but flamboyant. His voice was lispy and nasal, his speaking style leaden, albeit occasionally leavened by some self- deprecating aside. His message was less Periclean than Puritan. At his worst he could come across as insufferably pious and sanctimonious - a "holier-than-thou" moraliser who in the 1992 campaign visibly irritated a Bill Clinton under constant fire on the "character" front.

At his best, however, he was one of the country's most impressive politicians, straightforward, far-sighted and utterly honest. "He set an unparalleled example of integrity, candour and commitment," President Clinton, the man who defeated him, paid Tsongas ungrudging tribute yesterday on his death in the Boston hospital which he had entered at the beginning of January, suffering from pneumonia and heart problems stemming from the earlier cancer treatment. With that judgement, few Americans would disagree.

Paul Efthemios Tsongas, politician: born Lowell, Massachusetts 14 February 1941; married 1969 Nicola Sauvage (three daughters); died Boston, Massachusetts 18 January 1997.

Comments