By Steve Kornacki
If I’d been older, if I’d been smarter, if I’d ever actually watched a presidential campaign before, or if I’d been raised almost anywhere else in the country, I probably wouldn’t have paid much attention when Paul Tsongas decided to run for president.
But this was the spring of 1991, I was in sixth grade, I’d just been bitten by the political bug (after playing the Democratic candidate in our class’s mock Massachusetts gubernatorial election the previous fall), and – most importantly – the Tsongas family home was only a few miles from mine. That’s the part I couldn’t get over: Here was a guy vying for the most powerful job in the world, and his name was in our phonebook.
Not that anyone thought Tsongas had a prayer. The Gulf War had just ended and George H.W. Bush’s approval rating was about 90 percent. The only reason anyone paid attention to Tsongas’ announcement was because of what it said about his party: This was who they had?! Where were Cuomo, Bradley, Gephardt and the rest?
At the time, I didn’t grasp how absurd the Tsongas candidacy looked to the world. He’d served one term in the Senate, mostly in Ted Kennedy’s shadow, and had left eight years earlier after a cancer diagnosis. He’d pretty much disappeared from the news after that. And now here we were, four years after the Dukakis debacle; was there any Democrat anywhere in America who’d be excited about another Greek from Massachusetts? Oh, he had something of a speech impediment, too.
But to me, he was the local guy. Our newspaper, the Lowell Sun, treated his campaign as a big deal, and I did too. I’d ask the adults in my life about him, and invariably they’d end up telling me about his character – an unusually honest and decent man – and about what he’d done for Lowell, an old textile town that had spent decades in decline. Thanks to Tsongas, the mills and canals had been transformed into a national park, a source of local pride.
Then I found a copy of one of his books, “Heading Home.” It wasn’t about politics. It was about being 42 and finding out you have cancer – how the experience forces you to examine your life, reassess your priorities, and see the world in generational terms. I’d never thought about any of this before; the book had a powerful effect on my young mind. By the time the campaign was in full swing, Tsongas was more than just the local guy to me; he was the right guy to be president.
He came a lot closer to winning than anyone remembers. His main rival ended up being Bill Clinton, who was hit with a torrent of scandals. I still remember the Sunday night about a week before the New Hampshire primary when Tsongas finally overtook Clinton in the polls. Clinton was in freefall, Tsongas was surging, and Bush’s poll numbers had fallen way under 50 percent. It wasn’t just the Lowell Sun saying it anymore: Paul Tsongas could actually be president.
It was a thrill while it lasted, which wasn’t for long. By the middle of March, Clinton had righted his ship and forced Tsongas out. He came back to Lowell, was treated like a hero, and helped bring minor league baseball to town. There were health issues, too. It turned out he’d hidden a cancer recurrence, and there was another one when the campaign. There was a bone marrow transplant too, his second. I came home one Saturday night during my senior year of high school and turned the TV on just in time to hear that he’d died at age 55 – just two days before his first term as president would have ended.
I didn’t really understand Paul Tsongas’ politics in 1992, and I don’t know how enthusiastic I’d be about someone running on them today. But that hardly matters. He was a good person who did great things for the area I grew up. I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have learned politics by watching than him.