The Volunteer Who Was the Once and Future President of the U. S. — Paul Tsongas (Ethiopia)


By Jeremiah Norris (Colombia 1963–65) 

Paul Tsongas

In 1962, when Paul Tsongas was in training at Georgetown University to become a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ethiopia, on that first night as trainees were beginning to know each other, they were all asking “why did you join?” He answered: “I am going to run for office and the Peace Corps would be to my credit.”  At that time, it was a distant dream. Yet, it set him on a path that would subsequently propel him to be a viable candidate for the presidency of the United States. After his Volunteer days in Ethiopia, that dream was in process of fulfilment had not that cruel master — fate — tragically intervened.

After earning a BA Degree from Dartmouth College in 1962, Paul became one of the earliest Volunteers at a time when JFK’s signature on the Executive Order that authorized a Peace Corps was barely dry. This placed him in that pioneer group that was writing the first chapter of Peace Corps history.

Following his service, he earned a L.L.B. from Yale, then graduated from the Kennedy School of Government. Afterwards, he entered the political arena, beginning with his role as a City Councilor, elected to the Lowell City Council in 1969 where he served for two consecutive terms. He went on to serve as a Country Commissioner of Middlesex County, Massachusetts.

In 1974, Paul ran for the U. S. House of Representatives from a district anchored by Lowell— which had elected only three Democrats in its entire existence since the founding of the Republic, and had been in Republican hands continuously since 1895. Still, in the massive voter turnout in the post-Watergate election of 1974, Paul defeated the Republican candidate by a 21-point margin. He was reelected in 1976, becoming the first Democrat to hold the District for more than one term.

Increasingly popular and well-liked in Massachusetts, in 1978 he ran for and was elected to the U. S. Senate, defeating a Republican incumbent by a 10-point margin. In doing so, Paul Tsongas became the first Peace Corps Volunteer elected to the U. S. Senate.

In 1983 Paul was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and announced his retirement from the Senate in 1984. After undergoing a bone marrow transplant to treat this disease in 1986 and receiving a clean bill of health from doctors in 1991, he returned to politics, running for his party’s nomination for the presidency of the U. S. in 1992. Paul went on to win primaries in New Hampshire, Delaware, Maryland, Arizona, Washington, Utah, and Massachusetts. But his campaign was never able to match Bill Clinton’s fundraising appeals which proved so critical to his win on Super Tuesday. Among the 13 candidates in that Democratic primary, Paul was ranked #3 in terms of votes. Eventually, he pulled out of the campaign and endorsed Clinton.

Paul’s key accomplishments while in the Senate include working with an Interior Secretary for the successful passage of the massive Alaska National Lands Conservation Act of 1980, which had been hopelessly locked up since its original passage by the House in 1978. And, while a Member of the House, he played a major role in the creation of the Lowell National Historical Park, as well as in the establishment of a number of other National Parks.

In 1982, he met with PM of Israel Menachem Begin, and questioned him on how negotiations would fit in the event that PLO leader Yasser Arafat conceded the right of Israel to exist alongside with reneging the covenant of the PLO over calls for Israel’s abolition and replacement by a secular state. Paul commented afterwards that these meetings were “distressing,” meaning that a ‘two state solution’ remained a distant dream.

In that time of his life, though he was taken from us in 1997, Paul Tsongas used it to work towards a “more perfect union,” a timeless task, yet one that earned him A Profile in Citizenship.

Jeremiah Norris
Colombia 1963-65



Leave a comment
  • Thanks for remembering Paul and reminding us of his talent and vision. Good memories.
    Bill Donohoe (Ethiopia (62-64).

  • In training for Ethiopia ! at Georgetown University in the summer of 1962, I and my roommate Jon Heise were in the room directly across the hall from Paul and his roommate (I don’t recall who it was). Paul immediately became a close friend and it was clear his warmth and engaging style indicated a great future for him. One day Paul suggested the four of us go to the Blues Alley jazz club to hear Charlie Byrd, and that night I learned what really great jazz guitar was..I have long believed that Paul would have been one of our finest Presidents if only fate had allowed more people to know Paul as many of us did.

  • I remember the story of one of Paul’s students inviting him to visit his home. It was a long ride out to where he lived. When they entered the home Paul found two photos on the wall,
    One of Emperor Haile Selassie,
    the other of President John Kennedy.

    Ray Donaldson. Ethiopia 1 1962-1964 with Paul Tsongas

  • Jerry:

    Another outstanding profile. Your research is very comprehensive. I remember the Tsongas story. But, not the level of detail you have presented.

    He might have been an exceptional president. If nothing else, certainly one with more moral, ethical fortitude.

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