FOUR months ago he was nobody going nowhere, or so it seemed. Now Paul Tsongas definitely is an important personage after elevating himself to the status of a seriously regarded presidential candidate by virtue of boffo performances on two national TV debates.
Four months ago a rather uptight Mr. Tsongas met with the Monitor breakfast group, made up that morning mainly of reporters drawn more by curiosity than anything else. What we saw was a very earnest, very decent, quite intelligent fellow who had the charisma of a dried apple. We felt a bit sorry for the little guy, while giving him an for guts.
Tsongas has now surged upward in the New Hampshire polls, even as Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton dropped back. Surveys sponsored by the Boston Globe and WBZ-TV last Thursday through Saturday showed the former United States senator virtually pulling even with Gov. Clinton. How does Tsongas explain it?
"Even if I am not photogenic and all those kinds of things," he said, "the average person is going to gravitate to the candidate he thinks is going to rescue this country. That has to be the explanation for what is going on."
Success had loosened up the candidate. Whereas his wry humor had hardly been showing back in September, the other morning he revisited us for breakfast, and he was doing a lot of kidding around. Asked what message a Tsongas victory in New Hampshire would send out to the voters, he replied with a smile: "The message is that if you want to do well in presidential elective politics you have to be a Greek from Massachusetts." After drawing a big laugh, he added: "Everybody else is disqualified."
Here a questioner asked: "Is what you are saying to the voters this: That this country must now face sacrifice and austerity?"
"I think that overstates it a bit," replied the candidate. "People come up to me at the airports now and say, 'You are the only guy who is telling the truth.' And I went 10 months with no one coming up to me other than to say I'd left my luggage behind somewhere .... What I am telling people is that I'm not going to be Santa Claus."
Indeed, the recent polling in New Hampshire seems to indicate that this part of the Tsongas message is getting across. The portion of Democratic voters saying they feel Tsongas had shown himself the most truthful and honest of the candidates (27 percent) more than doubled those who picked Clinton.
Unlike most of the other candidates, Tsongas isn't promising a tax break for the middle class. In fact, one of his most recent TV ads scoffs at the idea as irrelevant to the central task of turning the US economy around. Instead, Tsongas is saying the US must gird for an economic "war" and that it cannot be won "with giveaways and tax cuts."
"It isn't just sacrifice that I'm talking about," Tsongas said. "It is taking the forces that are already there and moving them in the right direction." The American people want to hear this, he said.
"People are scared," Tsongas asserted. "I had that feeling 10 months ago. And now it is being felt all around the country. I give them hope. I say to them, 'Let's start dealing with the problem.
To some of us the Tsongas formula for shoring up the economy seemed a little vague: "My view of life," he said, "is that you have an enormous river that runs, called self-interest. What I have to figure out is how I take that river and not create a new river, but channel it. If I know how this economy works, and I think I do, then my job is simply to shift the channel - to see that this river is flowing in the right direction.
"That's what I propose to do with my capital-gains tax. It's how to get people to invest. It's how to get people in corporations to think differently. If I can readjust those markers, that river is going to flow in the right direction." Tsongas's capital-gains plan would progressively lower the tax for longer-term investments.
Well, it seems that voters like the sound of this. Also, if he does as well in New Hampshire as polls indicate, he'll have ample time to flesh out the details of his plan.
Here someone asked: "If you won in New Hampshire and became the front-runner instead of the underdog, could you stand the prosperity?"
"Well," Tsongas replied, d like to taste it."
Concerning the "charisma problem" that dogged him for months, he said: "I think that the press should pay attention to someone with good ideas and not just look at electability .... I spent 50 years thinking that I was good looking. It was only when I ran for president I found that I wasn't. But what people are seeing in me now is not what is on the surface but what is inside."
A soft-voiced but supremely confident Paul Tsongas closed the breakfast with this capsule view of why he is starting to be so well received by the public:
"The only hope for our country is truth. Ultimately, I have only one horse to ride and that is truth - and that people will perceive that this guy is telling the truth and knows what he is doing. And if I give up that horse I have nothing."