Raise the Titanic?

It's a pleasure cruise compared to what Sen. Paul Tsongas has in mind -- which is nothing less than hoisting the entire sodden leviathan of the Democratic Party up to where it has a floating chance in 1984.

"There's a real vacuum out there, and I intend to fill it as much as I can," says the 40-year-old Massachusetts freshman, between mouthfuls of strawberry ice cream. Spooning up the goo ("I'm an ice-cream freak") from the dish a staff member brings, replacing the calories he burned that morning running in the Capital Challenge race, this compact man with the law-school scowl seems an unlikely savior.

But a growing congregation has been listening with mixed hope and horror to Tsongas since June 1980, when he shocked the convention of the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) with a doomsday denunciation of orthodox LBJ liberalism as irrelevant to the economic constraints of the '80s. The blue-chip columnists began to speculate on Tsongas futures and by last month Fortune magazine was calling him "the leading voice of a 'new liberalism.' " He'll be filling more of the vacuum this week when Knopf publishes his book, "The Road From Here: Liberalism and Realities in the 1980s."

Convinced that traditional liberalism is "bankrupt" and "the old FDR coalition is gone," Tsongas' book offers a theory of "compassionate realism," in which pro-business nostrums and tough tonics for an anemic defense system blend with the Democratic heritage of humane values.

In the geriatric hierarchies of the Senate, it is not considered prudent for a first-term solon to issue manifestos, or to sing so prominently out of tune with the Democratic doxology -- especially when the leading voices in the choir are home-state elders Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and House Speaker Tip O'Neill.

But, "What I'm saying is not threatening to anybody in the Democratic Party," says Tsongas. And the elders are effusive. Last Thursday, when Tsongas went to Kennedy's office to give him a copy of the book, he was ambushed by a champagne surprise party, a cake inscribed to "author, colleague and friend" and a chorus of "Happy Book Day to You." And O'Neill, who with Sen. Robert Byrd is sponsoring a party for Tsongas tomorrow, calls him "a personal friend . . . no one does their homework better than Paul Tsongas."

Skeptical colleagues doubt that Tsongas' maverick style will help him on the Hill. One Senate Democrat says, "You can't get very far as the Lone Ranger around here." But if necessary, Tsongas is used to going it alone. He was one of two Foreign Relations Committee members to vote against the confirmation of Alexander M. Haig Jr. as secretary of state, and made some enemies as the environmentalists' pragmatic ally in passing the embattled Alaska Lands Bill. And he seems immune to the aura of tradition. On the day of his first meeting with President Carter, Tsongas' wife was in the hospital after the birth of their second child, so he just brought his daughter along to the White House. And in the Senate -- which "takes itself rather seriously stylistically" -- he was stopped by a guard when he tried to take a daughter onto the floor. "Ludicrous," he snorts.

Assets and Liabilities

"I'm one of the more low-key human beings on earth," Tsongas says, slouching in shirt sleeves on his office couch. But not naive: He knows that his sudden loud iconoclasm is the sort normally regarded as a long-shot presidential bid. Tsongas says simply, "I'd rather that they'd talk about me that way than not. But the country would have to be ready for my ideas -- ready to say we don't want an ideologue, we want to be realistic."

"He's no baby-kisser," says Dennis Kanin, 35, Tsongas' administrative assistant. "He tells them what he thinks is important for them to hear, no matter what the consequences." Memories sour Kanin's smooth face into a Maalox frown. "Talking to Jewish groups, he tells them how he really feels about Menachem Begin Tsongas worries about his belligerence , and it gets hairy at times." Ditto for his pro-nuclear stance ("for a lot of liberal groups in Massachusetts, that's hard to swallow") and his strategy for the Alaska Lands Bill ("conservation groups didn't want to hear about any kind of compromise").

Tsongas says, "I'm no glad-hander and I'm not charismatic. But I trust my instincts." And if the party powers or the electorate find those instincts unsuitable, well, "What have I got to lose? The worst thing that can happen to me is that I don't get reelected. So what? I don't want to be a senator for the rest of my life. There is life after Congress, and I want to live in Massachusetts."

That's near-maniacal candor in a profession where camouflaging inanity often approaches an art. But as he sits here under the wall-size map of the world, feet propped amid the coffee table strewn with nature photography books (the Alaska Lands Bill was "the most significant thing I've done in the Senate, but I've never seen Alaska and probably won't for 10 years"), Tsongas' speech is as plain as his social life.

His style meets or exceeds the neo-austere standards of seriousness set by the recent crop of quiet young senators. "We're dull copy," Tsongas says of his wife, Nicola, and daughters Ashley, 7, Katina, 4, and 2-month-old Molly. They live quietly near the Alexandria Masonic Temple, and "usually go out with neighbors rather than other members of Congress." Why? "My kids are going to grow up as kids, and not as the senator's kids," Tsongas says. "Besides, I don't like to shave on weekends."

One Democratic colleague believes that he "spends so much time and energy trying to change the debate" that he neglects specific legislation, and that his national focus will hurt him at home. But Tsongas has been busy there, too. Aging Boston Gardens, home of the Bruins and Celtics, had long been physically obsolete, and 20 years of wrangling failed to produce a solution. Finally, last January, the Bruins announced plans to move to New Hampshire. At that point Tsongas "took the initiative to pick up a very hot issue," according to Thomas Hynes, a Boston real estate executive. Tsongas forged a coalition among the private sector and the often-antagonistic federal, state and city governments. The result: A bill to create a new $57-million arena will soon go before the legislature, to keep the Bruins in Boston. "Without Sen. Tsongas' leadership," says Hynes, who served on the planning committee, "we would have nothing."

The Making of a Maverick

Tsongas' mother died while young of tuberculosis, and he was raised by his grandmother and the father he calls "one tough customer," a Greek immigrant who became a firmly Republican owner of the dry-cleaning store where Tsongas worked as a boy. "I always identified with the workers, not management," he says. The job kept him from sports, and as soon as he got to Dartmouth, "I basically blew four years trying to prove I was a jock." He arrived not knowing how to swim, took the required course, found that the "solitary, self-dependent" sport fascinated him, and went on to letter in it.

"I picked the easiest major I could -- political science," and was accepted at Yale Law. But by 1962 he was caught up in the JFK mystique of the Peace Corps. He spent two years in Ethiopia teaching math and working in construction. In "the formative experience of my life," he found the "capacity of influence events" was "enormously fulfilling -- what I want out of my life now is to feel as good as I did then." Still, he came back to Yale and worked in the summers as an intern for his Republican congressman.After two years he decided he wanted to be a medic in Vietnam. "I was intrigued by the macho-ness of Special Forces, the Green Berets, and I envisioned myself dispensing medical services to these needy villagers." The vision faded in the summer of 1966, when he met Peace Corps director Jack Vaughn who said, "I was crazy." So he finished at Yale and spent another year with the Peace Corps as a training coordinator in the West Indies.

He had been vaguely interested in politics since the JFK election ("Robert Kennedy was sort of my role model") and when he returned to Lowell in 1968 (by now a Democrat), he served five years as an increasingly reform-minded city councilor and county commissioner, won a House seat in 1974 and became one of the most liberal members of the Watergate class. After only four years, he was tired of the incessant campaigning and constrictive scope, and toyed with the idea of the 1978 Senate race until he heard that Tom O'Neill, son of the speaker of the House, also was interested. When O'Neill backed out, Tsongas says, "We almost collapsed. I knew I'd have to run or look damn foolish." So he mounted a doubtful effort, declining to hire a professional consultant and creating his own ads, in which a little boy mispronounced his name as "Tickets." After squeaking through a tough three-way primary, he faced popular incumbent Edward Brooke. But Kennedy came to his aid, Brooke was blitzed with publicity about his bitter divorce, and Tsongas won with 55 percent of the vote.

He continued to amass high ADA and labor ratings, but had been growing uneasy with the left-wing line. Because of the family store, "I don't see businessmen as evil," and he soon found himself on the "wrong" side of a number of issues, proposing a wage freeze as a solution to the Chrysler bail-out and arguing for "rationing by price" of gasoline.

Having found a new philosophy, he also found a new forum by an "absolute fluke" in the summer of 1980, when the ADA issued him a "last-minute" invitation. His staff wrote "the traditional plaudits to liberalism," but he rejected it and gave the speech that made him a name. Afterward, "Everybody said, 'It's easy to criticize -- what can you say that's positive?' " By last fall he had 200 handwritten legal sheets, and by Nov. 8 he had a cause. "On the day Reagan was elected, I called a Washington columnist and said, 'Tell me about publishing houses!' " Tsongas wishes the book had come out earlier, to forestall suspicion that he was capitalizing on the Democratic Party weakness, but in the long run it may not matter: "If Reagan succeeds in his policies, the Democrats will become irrelevant in a way they have not since FDR."

But Tsongas is optimistic -- enough to begin thinking about a larger "philosophical book" and the "novel about a senator" which he planned but dropped because "I was afraid I wouldn't be taken seriously."

That, it seems, is no longer a problem.