You remember Miniver Cheevy from your American literature classes in high school or college. He was the main character in a poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson about a guy who lived in the wrong time.
Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,
Grew lean while he assailed the seasons;
He wept that he was ever born,
And he had reasons.
Miniver loved the days of old
When swords were bright and steeds were prancing;
The vision of a warrior bold
Would set him dancing.
Paul Tsongas, who died Jan. 18 at 55, was never a warrior bold, but back in 1992, he was for a time the front-running Democratic candidate for president of the United States. As The New York Times said of him: "Instead of fire-in-the-belly oratory, Sen. Tsongas offered a wry, self-deprecatory and occasionally moralistic message about responsibility." He began the primary campaign by winning New Hampshire and went on to victory in three other state primaries and four state caucuses.
But eventually, Bill Clinton blew him out of the water.
Speaking at the American Association of Advertising Agencies' annual conference in the spring of 1992, Paul Tsongas made it clear that his inability to match then-Gov. Clinton's negative advertising is what pushed him off the ballot. Mr. Tsongas said a candidate absolutely has to respond to his opponents' negative ads. "If you don't, you're compared to Dukakis. And if the world leaders think you can get hit and not respond, you have a nightmare on your hands," Sen. Tsongas then said.
In Colorado, the Tsongas campaign was leading by 8 points when Mr. Clinton started airing spots claiming Mr. Tsongas was anti-environment (because he supported nuclear energy). "We couldn't get our own spots on fast enough and our lead slipped away; we lost by 2 points to come in third."
One of the problems, Sen. Tsongas said, was after a long day of campaigning, "It's nonsense to believe that you can talk intelligently about Clinton's record as governor. You're exhausted; you can't think clearly."
Where negative ads work best is when people don't know what a candidate stands for, "where you're a blank blackboard" on which your opponent does the writing, Sen. Tsongas told the agency executives. He reflected that he'd be less susceptible to the ravages of negative ads later in the process "because people know what I stand for."
The former senator from Massachusetts talked of teaming up with Warren Rudman, a Republican he greatly admired, to campaign for both Democrats and Republicans, "to embrace people of courage regardless of party, and protect them from negative advertising."
Too bad Sen. Tsongas didn't have anybody out there at the time to protect him. Most politicians, and especially this man of another season, don't have the stomach to bash the other guy continually. (Clinton, Sen. Tson-gas said, would pick out "every issue on which an opponent calls for sacrifice-and distort it.") So negative advertising has the effect of "driving the best people out of Congress. They can't stand this nastiness."
Sen. Tsongas is no longer with us, but the nastiness remains. President Clinton, in his inaugural address, bemoaned the "petty bickering and extreme partisanship" in Congress. What does he expect?