Redemption in Lowell

“That is a lie,” Tsongas shot back. “A lie. A lie.”

“No one can argue with you, Paul,” Mr. Clinton snapped. “You’re always perfect.”

“I’m not perfect,” Tsongas said. “Just honest.”

Tsongas fell inches short in Colorado, then watched in agony as Mr. Clinton blanketed the make-or-break state of Florida with damaging aspersions on Tsongas’ commitment to Medicare and Israel. “Cynical and unprincipled,” Tsongas cried. But he lost the state—and the nomination.

After their ’92 campaign, he essentially never spoke to Mr. Clinton again. And Mrs. Tsongas, besides appearing with him when he came to Lowell (at the invitation of then-Congressman Marty Meehan) as president seven years ago, hasn’t been in touch either.

Moreover, during the 2000 presidential primaries, Mrs. Tsongas cut a last-minute television ad in New Hampshire, where her husband was and is recalled fondly, for Bill Bradley, pointing out that his record was being “distorted” by Al Gore the same way her husband’s was by Bill Clinton. Back then, Dennis Kanin, a Tsongas family friend who managed Paul’s 1992 campaign, said of Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore: “They characterize people with bold vision as risks to the American people. The motive is winning—winning at any cost. Bill Clinton and Al Gore are not the only people in politics who practice this, but it is unfortunate.”

Mr. Clinton’s rationale for attacking Tsongas in the first place was the claim that Tsongas actually attacked him first, by running an ad that criticized Mr. Clinton’s call for a middle-class tax cut, which Tsongas called pure pandering and utterly impractical in light of the country’s mounting deficits. Sure enough, three weeks after Mr. Clinton took office in 1993, he addressed the nation in prime time—to concede that, as much as he wanted to, the deficit would prevent him from offering the tax cuts he had championed.

“There should have been vindication in that (for Tsongas),” Mr. Kerrey said. “But I’m not sure there was.”

Didn’t that freighted history seem somewhat incongruous with the scene in Lowell on Sunday?

“That was then and this is now,” was about all Mrs. Tsongas would say on the subject.

Mr. Kerrey, who campaigned for Mr. Bradley with Mrs. Tsongas in New Hampshire in 2000, said political spouses often have a more balanced perspective when politics turns ugly.

“She didn’t like it, but she wasn’t consumed by it,” he said of Mrs. Tsongas.

As for Mr. Clinton, it would be easy to ascribe cynical motives to his eagerness to pitch in. Lowell is only 10 miles downriver from Nashua, N.H., and the Boston stations that covered his trip serve southern New Hampshire, where a majority of that state’s Democratic presidential primary voters live. Plus, Mrs. Tsongas’ endorsement is hardly a valueless commodity in New Hampshire. One of the three Tsongas daughters is already working for Barack Obama in New Hampshire. Perhaps Mr. Clinton’s pilgrimage to Lowell, then, will be enough to keep a Congresswoman Tsongas from following suit.

But maybe he found absolution too. Paul Tsongas got under his skin in 1992 like few politicians ever have, prompting several uncharacteristically sarcastic and biting outbursts from Mr. Clinton. Tsongas, who campaigned as a cancer survivor on a “journey of purpose,” eschewed the typical free-candy promises of politicians in favor of calls for economic sacrifice and politically poisonous reforms to costly entitlement programs. What Mr. Clinton saw, as he told reporters at the height of the campaign, was “a very clever politician.”

Long after that campaign ended, Tsongas’ crusade didn’t, and in the final four and a half years of his life he never offered Mr. Clinton the kind of public approval that his other defeated rivals all ultimately did.

But in Lowell on Sunday night, Mr. Clinton found that approval, when Niki Tsongas said that “in Bill Clinton’s last year in office, the federal government ran a $230 billion surplus. Eight years later … our national debt is approaching $10 trillion, and the Clinton surplus has become the Bush deficit of record proportions.”

Paul Tsongas ran for president against the Reagan-Bush legacy of a $4 trillion debt—an unconscionable abdication by one generation of its responsibility to the next, he argued. Tsongas died before the budget surpluses of Mr. Clinton’s second term were realized, and while Mr. Clinton never did tackle entitlement programs with the intensity Tsongas advocated, it sure seemed that on Sunday night Niki Tsongas was offering Bill Clinton the “job well done” that her husband didn’t live to provide on his own.

For his part, Mr. Kerrey—one of the leaders Tsongas actually hoped would oppose Mr. Clinton back in 1996—is satisfied that Tsongas would ultimately have come around on the Clinton presidency.

“It would have made Paul pretty happy to see Bill Clinton up there campaigning for Nikki,” Mr. Kerrey said. “It’s a moment when you can really say all the bad feelings from that campaign have ended.”

Redemption in Lowell