Voters saw through Silber's tyranny

Anthony Lewis

November 12, 1990|By Anthony Lewis

BOSTON — THE VOTERS were angry. But they were not so carried away by anger that they would put their trust in a man of vindictive and tyrannical character, even though he promised real change.

That is the lesson of Massachusetts in the 1990 election.

Much attention was focused on this commonwealth during the campaign, and there was much talk about political revolution, so a word of explanation may be in order.

Things did not turn out the way they were supposed to.

John Silber was the reason for all the talk.

The president of Boston University, he had never run for public office before. He ran for governor as a Democrat, although he had voted twice for Ronald Reagan and he mocked liberals.

Against the odds, Silber won the Democratic primary. In this overwhelmingly Democratic state, he looked like a winner. He had the support of the old-line organization Democrats. At the same time he appealed to the anti-politician mood of the voters by bitterly attacking the system.

The big-footed political writers came up from Washington to examine the phenomenon, and they pronounced it important. If Silber won, they said -- and he was likely to -- he would be an immediate force in national politics. He could be a candidate for president: an idea he had had himself.

The fascination with Silber reached some kind of peak when the Times of London published a feature on him under the heading, "America swaps spin doctors for a doctor of philosophy."

The article said he affected, "the austerity of Socrates." (His salary at B.U. is $275,000 a year.)

The Silber campaign defied the usual rules of politics. Instead of trying to please all constituencies with honeyed words, Silber attacked many.

He picked on Cambodians, saying they had come to Massachusetts because it was a welfare magnet. (The Cambodians here are not disproportionately on welfare.) He said that middle-class mothers who go out to work may be guilty of child neglect.

Each time Silber said something like that, the press announced a "Silber shocker."

But it turned out that the public did not mind.

People seemed to hear in him their own resentments of special-interest groups and the burden on the state's hard-pressed budget.

Ten days before the election, all signs were that Silber had it won. But on the night, he lost by around 75,000 votes, of 2 million cast, to the Republican, William Weld. What happened?

John Silber did it to himself. So most people here think.

Harvey Allen, a businessman who helped raise funds for him, said: "They believed in Silber and what he said on the issues, but they don't seem to trust him to be rational and handle the government for four years."

Night after night on television there was John Silber being contemptuous, arrogant, out of control in his rage at anyone who dared to disagree with him.

He called Weld a "back-stabbing son of a bitch," on television, for quitting the Justice Department because of Attorney General Edwin Meese's aromatic behavior.

He denounced a reporter as fair-minded as David Broder of The Washington Post.

The single-most damaging incident came in an interview by a local television anchorwoman, Natalie Jacobson of WCVB. Jacobson is not an aggressive questioner,and it was a low-key program. But when she asked Silber whether he had any weakness he could name, he exploded in rage.

In these episodes the public saw what a good many colleagues of John Silber have seen over the years: a man so sure of his own perfection that he treats questions as lese-majeste, a bully who answers disagreement by trying to humiliate those who differ.

John Silber came across, to a sizable number of voters, as someone who saw the state as a large correctional institution that needed him as warden. And next, the country.

Americans are hardly immune to political temptation. They have voted for Huey Long.

When race is involved, a Jesse Helms can still win with a campaign of unlimited vileness. But perhaps we do have a certain resistance to the notion that in dangerous times we must turn ourselves over to a maximum leader.

The day after the election Silber denied that he had made mistakes. The people, he said, had been misled by the press. Exactly. The people proved themselves unworthy of his genius.

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