Panel remembers life of politician Tsongas '63

by Austin Zalkin | 11/13/98 6:00am

A former Senator, current Congressman and Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist were among the five people who recalled the life of former Senator and presidential candidate Paul Tsongas '63 at a lecture last night. Tsongas died two years ago after a long battle with cancer.

Over 100 students and community members, including College President James Wright and Paul Tsongas's family, gathered in 105 Dartmouth to attend the inaugural Paul E. Tsongas Memorial Lecture.

Warren B. Rudman, who co-founded the Concord Coalition with Tsongas after leaving his New Hampshire Senate seat, discussed working with the Senator from Massachusetts on what has become the biggest special interest group in the nation, according to Rudman.

Congressman Martin T. Meehan, D-Mass., referred to Tsongas as a second father and discussed his legacy as an honest and forward-looking Democrat who "made it okay for Democrats to be for reducing the government."

David Shribman '76, the Washington Bureau Chief of the Boston Globe and a Pulitzer honoree, moderated the panel and recalled Tsongas's collegial relationship with members of the press.

Mary Helen Thompson, who served as press secretary for Tsongas, and Brian Martin, a local politician and former Mayor of Lowell, Mass. -- Tsongas's hometown -- completed the group.

The panelists put together an hour-long memorial, with each giving brief speeches following an introduction from Shribman. Then they took questions from the crowd.

Each of the individuals on stage spoke of Tsongas's idealism and commitment to reform from their own unique perspectives.

Rudman discussed his work with Tsongas in the early years of the Concord Coalition, a non-profit organization with the goal of educating the public about the nation's financial well-being.

"I traveled with Paul Tsongas from 1992 until he physically could not travel," Rudman said.

Rudman said Tsongas believed that "the great center of America is fiscally responsible and socially inclusive." Rudman said he continues to believe this himself, and he spoke of a promise he made to Tsongas to continue the fight for creating a truly balanced budget.

Meehan recalled his position as an aspiring politician when Tsongas climbed through the ranks of state government.

"He was a visionary," Meehan said. "He was always ahead of his time."

Meehan echoed the earlier sentiment of Shribman, who termed Tsongas the "un-politician." He said, "If you ever asked Paul Tsongas a question, you better be ready for the truth."

Meehan currently holds Tsongas's former seat in the House of Representatives and credited Tsongas with making it possible for a Democrat to occupy the position.

Thompson, who worked closely with Tsongas in his six-year term in the Senate, called her former employer "an original" and "a maverick." She said "he was truly brilliant in a non-aggressive way."

Thompson extolled the Senator's virtues, recalling the numerous nationalities who filled his office because they thought he was "an open-minded lawmaker."

Martin discussed Tsongas's continued contributions to Lowell, Mass., even after he had ascended to Congress. The crowd laughed at an anecdote Martin recounted involving a time when he and Tsongas planted tulips in a local park; the story attempted to illustrate Tsongas's deep regard for his hometown.

Tsongas's "involvement with projects brought [them] instant credibility," Martin said.

Martin also spoke of his mentor's effect on his own career when Martin was considering leaving public life.

Tsongas "inspired me to fight the fight," Martin said.

Questions from the crowd drew the panel away from directly discussing Tsongas, prompting the two national politicians to discuss policy matters.

When asked about term limits, Rudman said, "We have term limits in this country. They're called elections."

Rudman also fielded a question about entitlements by criticizing the government's spending and suggesting that Medicare is in danger.

Meehan added to the criticism of public spending, suggesting that Tsongas would have thought America's governmental spending is irresponsible despite claims of a balanced budget.

Professor Linda Fowler, head of the Rockefeller Center, which sponsored the event, said the Center intends to put on a lecture in Tsongas's honor for many years.