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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Internal Recruiter - Manufacturing

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Internal Recruiter (manufact...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager (CIPD) - Barking / East Ham - £50-55K

£50000 - £55000 per annum + 25 days holidays & benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Man...

Recruitment Genius: Operations / Project Manager

£40000 - £48000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This software company specialis...

Ashdown Group: Human Resources Manager

£28000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: A successful organisation...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future