Jim Wilson/Globe Staff
Listening to Donald Trump yesterday, speaking caustically and bombastically against the backdrop of a gleaming helicopter emblazoned with the name "Trump," I was struck by the contrast between him and the late Senator Paul Tsongas.
The Massachusetts Democrat announced his candidacy for the presidency 20 years ago Saturday, on April 30, 1991, and the approaching anniversary had prompted me to reminisce in recent weeks about the first White House campaign I covered.
The difference between Tsongas and Trump could not be more pronounced.
Trump, making his first visit to New Hampshire as a prospective candidate for the 2012 Republican nomination, started by boldly claiming credit for what he considers an accomplishment: making a mid-term president prove he is a legitimate officeholder by releasing an unabridged version of a birth record first posted on the Internet three years ago.
"I am really honored, frankly, to have played such a big role in hopefully, hopefully getting rid of this issue," the New Yorker told reporters who watched him fly into the Pease International Tradeport. "Now, we have to look at it. We have to see, is it real? Is it proper? What's on it? But I hope it checks out beautifully."
He added: "It is rather amazing that all of the sudden it materializes, but I hope it's the right deal."
The innuendo didn't end there. Trump also attacked the president's academic credentials.
"The word is, according to what I've read, that he was a terrible student when he went to Occidental (College)," said Trump, mentioning the undergraduate school Obama attended before transferring from Los Angeles to New York. "He then gets to Columbia (University). He then gets to Harvard (Law School). I heard at Columbia he wasn't a very good student. He then gets to Harvard. How do you get into Harvard if you're not a good student? Now, maybe that's right, or maybe it's wrong. But I don't know why he doesn't release his records. Why doesn't he release his Occidental records?"
Asked who cares about that issue, Trump replied: "Well, I'll tell you who cares, because everybody says he was this great student. Well, if he was, that's great, and if he wasn't, that's great. I was a very great student."
He then looped back, saying, "I'd like to know, how does he get into Harvard, how does he get into Columbia, if he isn't a good student? It's an interesting thing."
Nonetheless, the billionaire denied he was engaging in rumor-mongering.
"It's not innuendo; I'm just reporting what I read. I read stuff that you people write," said Trump.
If it wasn't innuendo or rumor-mongering, it had the trappings of McCarthyism or racism.
Toward the first point, Trump was unafraid to both propose a pregnant question and then declare he hoped it had no bad answer. Between the two is speculation based on vague "stuff."
Toward the second, the common thread between questioning the legitimacy of Obama's birth certificate and his college transcripts seems to be a suggestion the nation's first black president doesn't legitimately hold the job, and that the education he received before attaining it also was achieved through deception or affirmative action.
Yet later, during an interview with the New Hampshire Union Leader, Trump bristled at the suggestion he was playing the race card.
"This has nothing to do with race. Absolutely nothing," he told reporter John DiStaso, who has chronicled the New Hampshire primary since before the Tsongas days. "There is nobody who's less of a racist than me."
Trump suggested Obama himself played the race card during the 2008 campaign against Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton, when the former president campaigned on behalf of the former first lady as she challenged Obama for the Democratic nomination.
Twenty years ago Saturday, Tsongas spoke not caustically but enthusiastically, not bombastically but with typical self-deprecation.
The backdrop wasn't a Sikorsky helicopter bought with wealth from a real estate empire started by a prospective president's father and used for personal convenience; it was brick mills in Lowell once worked by immigrants like another's parents, restored with money raised through a public-private partnership for civic education and enjoyment.
Tsongas also didn't lay the foundation for his campaign with a flashy television show called, "Celebrity Apprentice." He did it with an intentionally sober, 86-page pamphlet entitled, "A Call to Economic Arms."
Tsongas spoke that Tuesday as a chilly drizzle fell on Boarding House Park in his hometown. Many in the crowd were supporters who had first met him when he ran for the Lowell City Council. They then remained loyal as he won a seat in the US House of Representatives and then in the US Senate.
Tsongas announced in 1984 he would not seek reelection as senator the following year because he had been diagnosed with cancer. But after a bone marrow transplant, he decided by 1991 he was well enough to return to public life.
His target was an incumbent president, George H.W. Bush, enjoying sky-high approval ratings in the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm, the original Persian Gulf War.
Tsongas accused three successive Republican administrations of squandering the nation's promise, accusing Bush of promising "no new taxes" during his 1988 campaign but then pursuing policies that added to the nation's deficit.
"Our children deserve better," Tsongas said in his droll manner. "On this journey of purpose, I commit myself to making this country a thriving, striving, triumphant competitor in the world marketplace."
The remarks were cheered by his wife, Niki, and three daughters, Ashley, Katina, and Molly.
Tsongas went on the win the 1992 New Hampshire primary, as well as contests in a half-dozen other states, before Bill Clinton beat him on Super Tuesday and forced him to concede defeat.
On Jan. 18, 1997, two days before he would have ended a term as president, Tsongas died of pneumonia and liver failure linked to the aftereffects of his cancer. He was 55. Niki Tsongas now holds her late husband's former seat in the House.
In concluding his remarks yesterday, the 64-year-old Trump outlined the personal challenge for him and the potential payoff for his supporters.
He said: "If I decide to run, and that's a big decision for me, including the fact, frankly, that I would have to give up one of the most successful shows on television, which is a lot of money and a lot of prestige and a lot of power you know, it's very cool being a television star, it's very cool, and I'd have to give that up, and I'd have to give up a lot of other things up, but I would make, if I ran, and if I won, I would make this country rich again. I would make this country powerful again. And I would make this country respected again."
Two decades ago on Saturday, Tsongas used more prosaic terms as he outlined the political challenge for him and the potential payoff for his supporters.
"I offer a different path," he told a crowd dotted with placards reading, "Another Economic Patriot for Paul."
"Harder, but more hopeful. Longer, but more compelling. Steeper, but more worthy," Tsongas said.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.