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
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£36000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, - 1 Year contract

£50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, Stock...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Human Resource Officer and Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join one of...

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk