Former Sen. Paul E. Tsongas, who rebounded from cancer to briefly become the Democratic front-runner for president in 1992, died Saturday of pneumonia. He was 55.
Tsongas, who was hospitalized Jan. 3 with a liver problem related to his cancer treatments and later developed pneumonia, died at 7 p.m. at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the hospital said.
The soft-spoken Tsongas was one of the first nationally known Democrats to try to give the party a probusiness direction, which became the central theme of his bid for the presidency.
Running after having battled cancer, Tsongas also drew attention to the issue of a candidate’s health disclosure.
He had ruled out running for a second term in the the Senate in 1984 after he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. But two years later he declared himself cancer-free after being one of the first 100 people to undergo a grueling, experimental transplant in which his own bone marrow was removed and later reintroduced into his body.
In 1991 he became the first Democrat to challenge President Bush. He said running for president had become a “responsibility because I survived” and proclaimed: “Enough of this Washington mediocrity.”
In his campaign, Tsongas (pronounced SONG-gus) stressed the need for the Democratic Party to forge a stronger alliance with business. His platform included such probusiness planks as a capital gains tax cut and economic incentives. But he scorned middle-class tax cuts that he said the government could not afford, saying “I’m not running to be Santa Claus. I’m running to be president.”
“Democrats are going to have to go back to the original act - the creation of wealth,” Tsongas wrote in his campaign manifesto.
His combination of old-fashioned liberalism and economic pragmatism caught on long enough to put him briefly into the lead as thenGov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas battled criticisms about his personal life.
He won the New Hampshire primary in February 1992 and went on to win in Maryland, Utah, Arizona, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
His success brought comparisons with Michael Dukakis - another Greek-American from Massachusetts who won the 1988 Democratic nomination, only to go down to disastrous defeat that November.
“Let ‘88 fade,” Tsongas replied to such talk. “Judge me for what I am.”
In the end, though, Tsongas could not hold off Clinton, and, short of money to press a campaign in large states like New York, he resigned from the race in March.
Three weeks after the November election, Tsongas suffered a relapse of cancer. He was released after receiving additional doses of radiation and chemotherapy. The disclosure prompted concern and also criticism that he had been vague during the campaign about the removal of a cancerous node in 1987.
He said at the time that he had “come to the painful conclusion that there’s no way around full medical disclosure” and said his campaign should have been more frank.
In May 1996, he underwent another transplant, getting bone marrow from his twin sister, Thaleia Schlesinger, to correct myelodysplasia, a bone-marrow disorder common in people who have recovered from lymph cancer.
After dropping out of the presidential race, Tsongas joined former U.S. Sen. Warren Rudman, R-N.H., to form the Concord Coalition, a public interest group focusing attention on the nation’s economic problems.
He also practiced law and remained active in public affairs in his home state, serving as chairman of a state board on higher education and on a commission that studied development on Cape Cod.
Tsongas’ tenacity was apparent early on. As a child he had never learned to swim, but at Dartmouth College he discovered swimming was a mandatory part of the school’s fitness test.
Not only did he learn to swim, Tsongas become a member of the swim team, and used swimming as a frequent metaphor during his political career.
After graduating in 1962 he became one of President Kennedy’s first Peace Corps volunteers, serving in Ethiopia and the West Indies.
He received a Yale Law School degree in 1967 and began his political career the following year when he was elected to the City Council in Lowell, the mill town where his parents had settled. From then on, he never lost a race in Massachusetts.
Tsongas was elected to Congress in the state’s heavily Republican Fifth District by a wide margin in 1974 and served two terms before unseating incumbent GOP Sen. Edward Brooke, the Senate’s only black member, in 1978.
Tsongas quickly made a name for himself in Washington as a leader of the so-called “neo-liberals,” a group of young lawmakers who urged the Democratic leadership to temper its left-leaning idealism with economic common sense.
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