Redemption in Lowell

kornacki clintonnikitsongas Redemption in LowellThere was a certain generic familiarity to the proceedings at the jam-packed city auditorium in Lowell, Mass., on Sunday night: With Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best” blaring and more than 2,500 Democrats screaming and stomping their feet in delight, Bill Clinton strolled onto the stage arm in arm with his party’s candidate for Congress. Like running mates at a national convention, they beamed and raised their clasped arms, soaking up the affection of the party faithful.

 

Lowell, an old textile mill town 25 miles northwest of Boston, anchors the 5th Congressional District, where a special election will be held in two weeks. It’s hardly surprising that Mr. Clinton, one of the great natural campaigners of his generation, would accept a Democratic candidate’s plea for help, especially in a district in the same media market as southern New Hampshire.

Hardly surprising, that is, until you consider the identity of that Democratic congressional candidate: She is Niki Tsongas, and 15 years ago her husband’s improbable presidential campaign was ravaged by inflammatory attacks from Bill Clinton.

Maybe you’ve forgotten the unlikely chord that Paul Tsongas—with his poll-defying adherence to a message of economic sacrifice and his dry, self-deprecating style—struck with his fellow countrymen in 1992, and just how dirty Mr. Clinton was willing to get to stop him.

Tsongas—who died five years later of complications from a bone marrow transplant at the age of 55—never quite forgave Mr. Clinton.

Only on the evening of the Democratic convention in the summer of 1992 did Tsongas offer his endorsement of Mr. Clinton, and it was a grudging and perfunctory one at that. Midway through Mr. Clinton’s first term, Tsongas called his old foe “a threat to my children” for his budget priorities and set about trying to recruit a challenger—either within the Democratic Party or through a third party movement—to Mr. Clinton for 1996. He found no takers, but even in his final interviews, in 1996, when it was clear his old foe would easily win a second term, Tsongas talked only of the hard budget choices the president refused to make.

He died the same weekend that Mr. Clinton was readying for his second Inaugural.

“I’m not sure that Paul, in his lifetime, ever got over it,” Bob Kerrey, one of the other Democrats who ran for president in 1992, said in an interview last week.

Not that anyone in Lowell on Sunday would have gotten that impression.

“Somewhere, Paul Tsongas is smiling down on us tonight,” Mr. Clinton said in his warm, soothing drawl. The crowd—and Mrs. Tsongas—applauded.

This is Niki Tsongas’ first foray on her own into electoral politics, and the finish line in her congressional race is just two weeks away, on Oct. 16. She’s run a community college in Lowell since her husband’s death, but it’s the lingering appeal of her family name that has driven her campaign.

Still, this is the first time since the 1992 presidential primaries that the Tsongas name has appeared on a ballot in Massachusetts, an eternity in politics. Mrs. Tsongas won the Democratic primary by just four points and there have been a few unnerving signs since then, like the recent poll that had her G.O.P. opponent within 10 points—a triumph in itself for a Republican in Massachusetts.

This being Massachusetts and 2007, Mrs. Tsongas should still win, and comfortably. But evidently, she doesn’t want to chance things: It was her decision to invite the man who spoiled her husband’s magic moment back in 1992.

“We reached out to them and he very quickly agreed to come,” Mrs. Tsongas told The Observer.

“I’m very appreciative of his willingness to do this,” she said. “He’s a busy man, as we know, and so I think it’s great that he wants to do this.”

And on one level, her decision is easy to understand. Mr. Clinton’s presence landed the Tsongas campaign on every major Boston television station Sunday night and Monday, to say nothing of the print coverage it netted, invaluable exposure in a race in which media exposure is at a premium. And Bill Clinton is political gold in Massachusetts, the perfect reinforcement for Mrs. Tsongas’ effort to run against the Bush administration. If there were any doubts about Mrs. Tsongas’ chances of winning, the Clinton visit probably puts them to rest.

But what about Paul?

Three nights before the 1992 Colorado primary—then one of three pivotal “junior Tuesday” contests sandwiched between lead-off New Hampshire and the Super Tuesday bloc of Southern states—the top two contenders faced each other on a debate stage in Denver. Bill Clinton warned that a Paul Tsongas presidency would mean “hundreds more” nuclear power plants, a powerful bit of fear mongering meant to sow distrust among Colorado’s eco-conscious Democrats toward Tsongas, an accomplished conservationist and the author of the Alaska Lands Act of 1980.