COLLEGE PARK, MD. — PAUL TSONGAS, the Jay Leno of the 1992 campaign trail, gets a lot of laughs as he stumps across the United States looking for votes.
Like comedian Leno's, Mr. Tsongas's humor often contains some sharp political needles aimed at Republicans. But more often his jokes are self-deprecating, delivered with a deadpanned style which delights his audiences.
One night during the New Hampshire primary campaign, Tsongas was faced with a huge crowd of university students who surrounded him on three sides. As people squeezed closer, Tsongas observed wryly: "In order to be heard, I'll have to speak out of both sides of my mouth. I've tried to avoid that!"
At one public meeting, protesters railed at Tsongas about nuclear power, campaign reform, and other causes. Finally, a man got up and apologetically said he didn't represent any special interest, he was just an ordinary citizen with a question.
"In that case, sit down!" Tsongas said. The crowd howled.
Last week here at the University of Maryland, Tsongas used one of his favorite rhetorical devices when asked about pollution problems. He began his answer, "George Bush, the environmental president...."
Before he could say more, the audience laughed, and Tsongas said: "You see, all I have to do is say, 'George Bush, the environmental president,' and it's a laugh line."
Tsongas uses humor to diffuse emotional issues, whether it is race relations or the battle over nuclear waste.
When asked how the US can remain cohesive with all its new immigrants, Tsongas said it would happen naturally. He noted that, in his own family, he is Greek-American, and his wife, Niki, is of English, French, Scottish, and German extraction. He said that when one of his three daughters was asked what her background was, she replied: "Half Greek, half regular."
He likes jokes at the expense of Vice President Dan Quayle. Tsongas admitted to one audience that his own college grades were only average. But he added quickly that if they had been really terrible, he would be running for vice president.
President Bush, of course, is the butt of many Tsongas witticisms. Tsongas observes that last year, when he got into this campaign, Bush was at 91 percent popularity. Now Bush is down to 40 percent. Tsongas says:
"I almost feel, as a humanitarian gesture, I should get out of the race!"
Often he is challenged by the audience on emotional issues such as nuclear power (which he favors under certain circumstances) and the free-trade treaty proposal with Mexico. After he had given one very long explanation of his position, the questioner leaped back to his feet and began loudly denouncing Tsongas. When the man finally quieted down, Tsongas observed dryly:
"I was obviously not very persuasive."
Although some political analysts say Tsongas's bout with cancer in the 1980s is a major political handicap, he never hesitates to mention it, or even joke about it.
In one speech, he spoke movingly of the time doctors diagnosed him with the disease. As he described that day, an infant in the audience burst into tears. Tsongas quipped: "I felt the same way."
Later that evening, the same child began to cry again. As the mother carried the baby out of the auditorium, it let out one last, loud wail.
"I hope to do that to George Bush," Tsongas said.
At one point during a town meeting, an AIDS activist presented Tsongas with an AIDS T-shirt, honoring his work on the issue. Tsongas, a man of average size, looked inside the shirt and chuckled when he saw the size: Extra Large.
"If I go up any farther in the polls, it would fit my head size," he told the audience.
Tsongas won't miss a chance for a bit of humor, laced with sarcasm, at the president's expense, even when the story is a little long-winded.
He tells of working as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ethiopia in the 1960s. Even in a remote village accessible only after days on horseback, Tsongas spotted a photo of President John Kennedy on the wall in a farmhouse.
Today, he says, even if "you rode, and you rode, how far and how long would you have to ride, and how many houses would you have to check? Can you imagine walking in and there is a picture of George Bush?"
In a debate, former Gov. Jerry Brown of California denounced the US tax system as one in which lawmakers pass out "new little lollipops" to business every few years. Tsongas immediately shot back: "I have always taken a strong anti-lollipop stand my entire...."
His last words were drowned out by laughter.