IF you want to know about Paul Tsongas, a probable Democratic presidential candidate, you need to know two things: Lowell, Mass. The Peace Corps.
Lowell is where Paul Efthemios Tsongas (pronounced: Song-gus) grew up, the son of a Greek dry cleaner. Lowell in the '50s was a declining city; growing up there, says Mr. Tsongas, meant seeing his father work very hard with little reward. The struggles gave him a respect for businessmen and the necessity of a well-run economy.
His two-year stint in the Peace Corps, teaching in Ethiopia, gave him an understanding both of the needs of third-world countries and a respect for the cohesiveness and spirituality of their societies.
The former United States senator from Massachusetts met with reporters and editors at The Monitor last week to discuss his anticipated run for the presidency and share his ideas on changing the Democratic Party. He has notified the Federal Election Commission of his intent to run and is expected to officially announce his candidacy within a few weeks.
Tsongas may seem a very long shot in a field of possible candidates including Mario Cuomo, Richard Gephardt, George Mitchell, and Albert Gore, all of whom are in office. Tsongas has been out of office for six years, has no organization and no money. He left office because of an illness which he says has been overcome.
He is not well-known nationally, but his candidacy would be certain to remind people of that other liberal Greek from Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis, who lost the 1988 presidential race and lost big.
On the other hand, he has been elected to public office six times, including terms in the US House and Senate. When he left the Senate in 1984, he joined a Boston law firm and served on the boards of seven corporations.
Tsongas says he feels that "going through what I went through personally and having been in the private sector for seven years" has made him better prepared to be president than serving seven more years in Washington. The experience, he adds, gave him more compassion for those who are "vulnerable. Because I know what it means to be."
Why is he inclined to run for president? Tsongas says he wants to make some major changes in the Democratic Party and has been talking about doing so since 1980.
What this self-described "pro-business liberal" has to say is laid out in an 83-page paper, "A Call to Economic Arms: The New American Mandate." The paper spells out his positions on the need to restore America to the world's preeminent economic power, to achieve energy sufficiency, and to repair America's social fabric so that we are "spiritually one community." To do this, he says, the US must embrace the long-lasting over the temporary, share sacrifice for the common good, and make the transition fro m a high consumption/low investment to a lesser consumption/high investment country.
He speaks bluntly - "I have always been a liberal and I always will be a liberal" - and says that his record in the Senate in terms of civil rights, human rights, and education, is "unattackable." The liberal Americans for Democratic Action wouldn't disagree; its performance rating on liberal issues credited him with being right on 75 out of 100. Neither would the American Conservative Union: it gave him a 5.
"His claim to be pro-business is something new; there's no difference between his voting record and Ted Kennedy's," says David Mason, director of the executive branch liaison for the Heritage Foundation. But Thomas Mann, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution, says while Tsongas upholds some traditional liberal positions, "on economic policy he seems more concerned with fostering economic growth than with distributing the benefits of that growth."
And Tsongas himself says many of his ideas veer from traditional liberalism. He's hard on Democrats who think that social programs can be paid for while doing nothing about a sagging economy. He's in favor of lowering the capital-gains tax and for nuclear power. While he is often described as a serious technocrat, periodically a dimpled grin sneaks through, as does a streak of humor. "Thirty years from now, if Japan rearms and invades the United States," he said in the Monitor interview, "the headline w ill be: Japan Invades Wholly Owned Subsidiary."
Tsongas plans to stump in New Hampshire, California, Iowa, and Florida.
"If you had asked me four weeks ago, 'If you just get your ideas out would you be satisfied?' my answer would have been yes," he says. "But I'm past that point now. I really do feel strongly about what's happening with this country. ... The more I got into this the more my 'fire in the belly' began to get stoked. The response to this has been extraordinary. Then, the Republicans started attacking me, and one souvlaki joke was all it took."