John Silber and the Limitations on Resources

September 23, 1990|By George F. Will

JOURNALISTS often are the last to learn what is happeing, even after it has happened. The morning after John Silber won the Democratic nomination to be Massachusetts' governor, the Washington Post said, "Silber gave a voice to the more conservative and disaffected Democrats but wounded himself repeatedly through a series of intemperate remarks. . . ."

Right. Wounded himself to victory. "Self-immolation" was a Boston press description of Mr. Silber as he rose from a late start, and dead last, to a landslide victory.

Mr. Silber, 63 and on leave as Boston University's president, has a mind full of sandpapery opinions and a barbed tongue with which he speaks his mind. His campaign produced many "Silber shockers," statements (such as Massachusetts is a "welfare magnet") that caused pursed lips in liberal circles. Those statements also caused a lot of voting levers to be pulled by people who don't know that their opinions are shocking (and "intemperate").

The most interesting "shocker" was his advocacy of genocide, his call for the elderly to get on with dying so government can get on with balancing the budget.

Of course he said no such thing, but a lot of people had fun pretending he did. During a discussion of health-care financing and terminal illness Mr. Silber said, "Shakespeare was right when he said 'Ripeness is all.' When you've had a long life and you're ripe, then it's time to go." His quotation from "King Lear" occurred in the context of facts like these:

In Massachusetts $250,000 or more may be spent on futile medical procedures for someone terminally ill, yet there is insufficient money for detoxification of pregnant women addicted to Cocaine or alcohol. (The public cost per affected child: more than $200,000, before kindergarten.) Poor children are contracting polo, whooping cough and measles because there is not enough money for inoculations.

Perhaps, said Mr. Silber, society's resources are not being allocated properly, particularly because the low-income elderly might like less of society's finite resources devoted to heroic measures for the terminally ill and more to eyeglasses, hearing aids, dentures and prescription drugs. Mr. Silber's opponent said: "Silber wants to ration health care for the elderly."

Mr. Silber responded that medicare is always rationed, to some patient , by limitations on resources and by price. And when children are dying of preventable childhood diseases two miles from where millions of dollars are being spent on futile measures for the terminally ill, that, too, is a form of rationing.

Mr. Silber's problem, if such it is, is that he, a former professor of philosophy, has the habits of a professor. "Typically, I put forward a statement for examination and then develop evidence and argument toward a conclusion. In the context of a political campaign, I've discovered that the first thing one says - and often it is said to attract attention - is taken as the sound bite and the definitive position of the candidate on a subject. If the candidate makes any effort to enlarge upon that sound bite, he is then accused of having changed his position."

By the way, the "intemperate" Mr. Silber got 55 percent of the elderly vote.

Mr. Silber is a conservative Democrat. Both the adjective and the noun are correct. As a Democrat he believes in strong, interventionist government. In the context of the enveloping urban crisis, he particularly favors early intervention in the lives of poor children.

As a conservative he is offended by the policies and vanities that have made Massachusetts a byword for mismanagement. And the intervention he favors - as with public education, particularly for the poor - is a conservative's response to the breakdown of civility and order.

But the importance of his candidacy is not just that he is resuscitating an honorable persuasion that is no longer adequately represented in the Democratic Party. His candidacy also is important in vindicating the practicality of campaigning with edge, bite and mind.

The effort to enforce blandness in general, and squishy liberal consensus in particular, achieved its greatest success with the Senate's rejection of Robert Bork, a former professor with temperamental as well as ideological similarities to Mr. Silber. The recent confirmation hearings for Judge Souter were instructive about the consequences of blandtification. Judge Souter, a complex and intellectually subtle man, strove to seem less so than he is, in order that he more closely resemble the members of the Judiciary Committee, Very prudent.

The uncomprehending media are convinced that Mr. Silber was "wounded" by the attributes that helped him win. The media probably are unaware that they are making an ideological pronouncement when they describe Mr. Silber's (and, it seems the voters') ideas as "intemperate." The public likes much of what he says and, even more, likes a candidate who says things that cause queasiness among the blandness-enforcers.

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