Tsongas Always Doubted He Had the Pizazz to Catch On With AM-Tsongas Quits, Bjt
Mar. 19, 1992
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Paul Tsongas always came off more like a bookish math teacher than a dynamic politician ready for a mighty presidential duel. Even he himself doubted he had the pizazz to catch on.
For a few shining weeks, to Tsongas' surprise, the non-pizazz candidate seemed to be just what voters wanted.
''Geek chic,'' someone on his campaign plane joked, was the only way to explain the wild attraction for the soft-spoken man of castor oil economics. At one Wall Street rally, he actually drew an economic chart on a huge campaign poster to make his point.
As he campaigned in Chicago this week, a few days before he dropped out of the race, a fan told Tsongas adoringly he was her Elmer Fudd, the funny little cartoon character.
Tsongas supporters said they'd had enough glitz in the White House. It was time for something different.
Tsongas, batting his eyes slowly and bowing his head, was always the first to joke about his rather flat persona.
''It's either charisma or the message. You decide,'' he would tell crowds in typical self-deprecating fashion, explaining why he had won New Hampshire, Maryland and five other states.
Riding high after those victories, Tsongas shrugged in feigned mystification when asked to explain why he had taken hold. ''I wish I knew,'' he said.
He painted himself as the reluctant warrior, the truth-bearer who had wanted a more charismatic Democrat like Bob Kerrey of Nebraska to take his economic plan and make the run instead.
But a year ago, when no one else was ready to take on President Bush's record-high approval ratings, Tsongas launched his campaign, armed with little more than a sharp wit and an 86-page booklet on how to revive the economy.
Tsongas assigned a college-age staffer to lug cases of the booklets to campaign stops, where the candidate would autograph them as if they were on the bestseller list.
Yet the booklet also reinforced the impression that he was a bit boring, a policy nerd. ''He has the charisma of a fish,'' said a voter in Dallas, who added that didn't bother him at all.
For all his gray image, Tsongas could flash a sharp wit and present his economic message in colorful fashion. ''I'm no King of the Mardi Gras, tossing coins and souvenirs,'' he would say of his rivals' tax credit plans.
''Life is not a beer commercial,'' he would say, holding himself out as the hard-choices candidate who would lead America on the long, tough path back to economic greatness.
By the end of his campaign, he was shooting off one-liners like a stand-up comic - many of them references to his attempts to become more telegenic.
''I now wear only red striped ties. If you see me without one, I will be fined by my campaign staff,'' he told one audience.
He dealt with even his worst political and medical problems with humor. ''You think I did not understand how difficult it would be to be Greek from Massachusetts?'' he would demand. ''And have cancer? And not hold office?''
Mostly, he was a sober candidate who often described to audiences the bleak depression of Lowell, Mass., where he grew up, and his mother's death from tuberculosis when he was a child.
His own near-fatal battle with cancer had given him a generational sense, he said. He would grimly tell audiences that people are judged when they die, that they needed to think about the legacy they would leave their children.
Yet he could be about as down-to-earth as politicians come. He would pad shoeless to the back of his plane and sit with reporters, propping his stocking feet on the seat in front of him and mulling aloud his surprise at how the race had unfolded.
The consummate family man, Tsongas needed to go home frequently to refuel by spending time with his wife and three daughters.
In the last few weeks, the aura of purity that prompted voters to view Tsongas as strong, principled and different from other politicians dissipated. He engaged in escalating clashes with Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, including TV attack ads and biting criticism on the stump.
But in the end, his wit reasserted itself. The candidate who was known for his swimming ads told a news conference he was dropping out of the race for president of the United States.
But he added: ''... I'm proud to announce that I'll accept the presidency of the Speedo bathing suit company.''