Paul Tsongas showed way to civility

There was a time comity was embraced and it could be again

FORTY YEARS AGO, Paul Tsongas was elected United States senator from Massachusetts. It was a time before laptops or cell phones. This was a time of only three national news networks, cable news was yet to be born, news cycles lasted a week, or at least several days, the only way you could read the Boston Globe and New York Times was in newsprint. There was no such thing as social media and the Red Sox had once again let their fans down in the big game at the expense of a Bucky Dent home run.

Little known throughout the state just two years before, Paul ran something rare in today’s divisive political atmosphere – a positive campaign based on issues, helping people and getting things done. He was seen as being too earnest by some and referred to as “Saint Paul” by others. He was neither. But running a negative campaign was never an option for Paul Tsongas.

As a young man just starting in politics, I was drawn to Paul Tsongas because he connected with people of all political stripes without sacrificing his core principles. Many young people such as myself were attracted to his fledging campaign and signed up as volunteers. With Paul Tsongas, we saw a good man with a lot of potential.

Paul and his main primary opponent, then Massachusetts Secretary of State Paul Guzzi, respected each other so much that both refused to go negative. I recall Paul being asked at a campaign event if he expected Guzzi to attack him in the final days of the primary campaign, and he responded that “Paul Guzzi would never do that.” And he didn’t.

Minnesota Senator Rudy Boschwitz’s office was near Paul’s in the Russell Senate Office Building. On the day of their swearing in, the conservative Republican sought out his colleague from Massachusetts to introduce himself and give a big Minnesota hello. After all, although polar opposites politically, they would be working together for the good of the country, wouldn’t they?

In 1983, a year before Paul would be diagnosed with cancer, he was gearing up for his reelection campaign. The Greek community of Greater Springfield hosted a party for him. On the day of the event it became apparent that Paul might not be able to attend due to a late Senate session with potential votes that evening.

He went to Howard Baker, the Senate Majority Leader and a Republican, and told him of his dilemma. He obviously would not miss votes but didn’t want to stand up his supporters, either.

Baker said he understood, wanted Paul to make his campaign event and assured him that he would schedule no votes after 5:00 p.m., thus ensuring his colleague could make it back home and not disappoint his friends. How do I know this? Paul thanked Senator Baker for his courtesy before a cheering room.

Paul felt free to approach Baker because the Republican leader understood that this was not just a Democrat, but also a valued colleague. As with Boschwitz, Baker considered comity in the Senate a treasured value. Despite ideological differences, Democrats and Republicans could and did work together. There was friendship and respect.

Comity is a little used word which at one time was commonplace in the United States Senate. According to Webster, it refers to “the code of courtesy and friendship by which nations get along together.”

For the Senate, before the 1990’s, comity was part of doing business. A Democratic senator from Massachusetts could approach the Republican leader of the Senate with a problem and know that he would be treated fairly.

Could you imagine Republican or Democratic leaders extending such courtesy today?

Comity extended to the House of Representatives. Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill opposed President Reagan and did his level best to defeat Reagan’s legislative agenda when they disagreed. But they respected and, equally important, liked each other. They were able to agree on a transportation bill and raised the federal gas tax from 4 cents to 9 cents per gallon to pay for it.

The Speaker and the President also passed the Immigration Act of 1986 which provided a path for undocumented immigrants to work in this country legally and protected more than 100,000 children from being separated from their families. One study published in the American Economic Review found that the Immigration Act actually lowered crime by 3.5 percent.

Democratic Senator John Kerry, for whom I worked, willingly reached out to newly elected Republican Governor Bill Weld shortly after Weld was sworn in. They co-sponsored an economic summit which resulted in Kerry filing legislation to lower taxes supporting young businesses. Kerry was advised not to reach out to Weld. But he did so anyway, extending the comity of the Senate to his future rival.

Democrats winning back the House of Representatives will elect Massachusetts Congressman Richard Neal as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. A 30-year veteran of the House, he remembers a time when there was less partisanship and Congress got things done. A student of history, Neal is expected to seek consensus wherever he can, such as on a 21st century transportation and infrastructure bill.

However, Neal won’t compromise on core values such as protecting the millions of Americans with pre-existing health conditions who rely on the Affordable Care Act to guarantee their access to health insurance.

I can’t help but wonder, if Paul Tsongas was with us today and extended his hand of friendship,

how he would be received. Would it make a difference?

Forty years after his election I can only hope that the approach once used by this candidate can again be the rule rather than the exception in the United States Senate.

Senator Tsongas was respected by Democrats and Republicans alike because he was willing to look for common ground and work with all members of congress to move our country forward. Always forward.

Meet the Author
Accommodation for the public good, a hallmark of Paul Tsongas’ legacy is precisely what our democracy could use right now. Let’s hope the political heirs of Paul Tsongas coming to Washington in the recent Blue Wave and their Republican counterparts will bring with them a new sense of civility.

Jim Shaer was an assistant to former US senator John Kerry for nearly two decades and got his start as volunteer for Paul Tsongas. He is currently a consultant in the non-profit field.