Several recent events jogged our memory on the name of Paul Tsongas and prompted a look back at the all-too-shortened life of the Massachusetts Democratic Senator elected in 1978 who also made an unsuccessful run for president in 1992.
First, as a college hockey fan, I found myself watching a playoff series with the UMass-Lowell River Hawks, who play at the Tsongas Center. Shortly thereafter, a Facebook and Twitter YouTube circulated with a 1980 Walter Cronkite news clip warning us of the impact of global warming in the next 50 years. Part of the clip featured Tsongas sounding the alarm on global warming and the need to heed the words of the scientific community on the impact climate change could have on our country. I also thought back to a weekend presider we had at the parish I attended in the 1990s who often quoted from Paul Tsongas as a man who had gained wisdom beyond his years and the important life lessons we could all take from this man’s refocus to the importance of daily living.
Those reminders within days of each other sent me back to reviewing the life of this Senator, who when diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of 42 in October 1983, refocused his life and learned the importance of “A Journey of Purpose” the name of his book written in 1995.
Tsongas lived the “American dream” until the cancer diagnosis; educated at Dartmouth, he worked with the Peace Corps in Ethiopia, and attended Yale Law School. He was elected to the city council in Lowell, Massachusetts, and as Middlesex County Commissioner before successfully running for the US Congress. In 1978, he defeated Senator Edward W. Brooke, a two-term Republican, with 55 percent of the vote.
In September 1983 Tsongas discovered a lump in his groin that was ultimately diagnosed as lymphoma. In his book, “Heading Home,” in which he chronicles the journey of the initial diagnosis and its impact on him, on his family, and ultimately on his political career, he wrote:
“I had been thrown off stride, and my internal resources were clearly inadequate. I needed time to adjust, to reprogram my concerns, to contemplate and assimilate an entirely new set of medical realities. But there was no time. The lump had entered my life only five days ago. I would have to do better – and fast.
“Finally, we decided that it made no sense for me to run again for the Senate, although the reelection mechanism was already in full gear. It didn’t matter anymore. What we were dealing with here was life – not issues, not job satisfaction, but the question of how long I would live. Political ambition and reelection strategy seemed almost juvenile in their innocence and irrelevance. The priority cards had been drastically shuffled.”
His seat ultimately went to fellow Democrat and 2004 presidential nominee John Kerry.
In a tribute to Tsongas after his death in 1997, his former speechwriter Douglas Pike noted:
As a senator, he stuck his neck out for what he thought was right, so there were plenty of uphill battles. Saving Chrysler. Preserving Alaskan wilderness. Trying to keep Al “I am in control here” Haig from becoming Secretary of State.
His favorite, dull issue was America’s dependence on dwindling oil reserves. In 1979, frustrated by public apathy, he had me write a satirical proposal for the U.S. to manufacture more dinosaurs to make more oil. While his closest advisers cringed, he took to the Senate floor and read a speech proposing R & D into the Diplodocus.
Once diagnosed, he attacked his lymphoma by underdoing risky, painful bone-marrow transplantation. Always the fighter and once the cancer was in remission, he returned to politics in 1991 in an attempt to gain the Democratic nomination for President.
Long before the words “Citizens United” were a gleam in anyone’s eye, Tsongas came to the realization that cancer-free or not, it was financial contributions and money that would dictate the outcome of the 1992 presidential primaries. He began the primary campaign with a victory in New Hampshire and went on to win three other state primaries and the caucuses of four states. Unable to keep up in “big media states” to combat the media buy of Bill Clinton, Tsongas suspended his campaign after losing primaries in Illinois and Michigan.
Pike, in his eulogy to Tsongas, wrote: He (Tsongas) relished long odds. With President Bush at the height of his popularity, with Al Gore and Bill Bradley cowering, Paul saw an opening for a truth-telling deficit-hawk driven by “the obligation of my survival.”
It was thrilling to watch him march through ridicule to victory in New Hampshire. It was heartbreaking to see Bill Clinton use half-truths and superior funding to cut him up in the South and Midwest. It was the only political campaign that Paul Tsongas ever lost.
In the weeks since his death, I’ve been wondering how to explain why we loved him so. Try taking the caricature of a politician and turning it inside-out: He was self-deprecating, sincere, candid, courageous. He was a quiet guy who whipped the conventional wisdom, again and again, by doing what he thought was right. He was the strongest man I ever met.
In our current world crying out for politicians to return to their roots of “public servant;” for a refocus for all of us to realize that our time on this earth is limited and that what we do and the decisions we make impact society not just us, we offer some quotes from Paul Tsongas as a reminder that good can come from those who work to serve We The People and that optimism in the face of darkness is always possible.
“In the end there must be purpose to our journey. Human endeavor cannot consist simply of random acts and happenstance. There needs to be meaning beyond self that gives our limited days definition and direction. And only within that meaning can the judgment rendered upon our lives have worth.”
“I now think generationally; I now talk generationally. It comes naturally to me and it colors my perspective on everything. Including politics. And politicians. I see generational responsibility as our most compelling obligation. It is ultimately all that gives purpose to our lives. And the rejection of that responsibility renders null and void whatever glories we have brought to ourselves.”
“I will die someday. All of us will die someday. And we will be judged by those whom we have left behind. Much of that judgment will not be kind. That is a prospect each of us must confront separately. But as a nation, as a society, as a political culture, we face that judgment together. And we, more than any generation in American history, will fail that test if we do not mend our ways.”
“Beyond individual achievement and failure, there is common purpose, shared and inescapable. It is not purpose derived from legislative mandates. It is generic. It resides in every living being because it is the continuance of that being. It is the sacredness of generational responsibility. To be given life and to ensure that life passes on, enhanced, cherished, protected.”
“Reversing the effect of many generations of slavery and racism was not accomplished the stroke of a presidential pen. No accumulation of legislative enactments and no series of enlightened Supreme Court (said before the Roberts’ Court) can do it either…We are dealing with deep-rooted cultural mores. We are living with the destruction visited upon African-American families over decades…We have inherited the whirlwind of past sins. And that legacy will take years to put behind us.”
“The nation desperately needs to set aside the niceties and have a frank conversation with itself about race…Can we as a people be honest enough to discuss race with our hearts and minds open, and with our tongues free to express what we really feel?”
“A global environment in disequilibrium dooms everyone…A world ruled by nuclear terrorists will know police states, not democracies…A society that abandons its mores and values and spirituality will soon lose its protective veneer of civilization and fall pretty to violent social unrest…A country that cannot bring everyone into the national family will suffer the consequences of failing to make residents of a nation’s stakeholders in that nation.”
“The challenges are the constant. The unknown variable is the will of America’s young people and their resolve. And in the end there is justice. Those who rise to meet their challenges are honored by history. Those who don’t are not…I feel good about what America’s young stand for. May they be more like our parents than we have been. May they be worthy of the sacrifice and blood of those who have preceded them in this wondrous nation. And yet may they forge ahead of us and our parents, broadening our view of who Americans are and what American can be. We entrust this nation to them for their keeping. May theirs be a journey of purpose.”
Paul Tsongas died on January 18, 1997 after being admitted to the hospital for liver problem related to his treatments for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Tsonga’s wife Niki, currently represents Massachusetts’s 3rd (formerly 5th) congressional district, the district her husband served prior to being elected to the United States Senate. Following John Kerry’s appointment as Secretary of State, she was widely expected to run in the 2013 special election for the Senate seat once held by her husband. Instead she endorsed Representative Ed Markey, who currently holds that position. We invite you find out more at the Paul Tsongas Congressional Collection at the UMass-Lowell Libraries by clicking here.
Also, the Walter Cronkite YouTube on climate change: