This Was a Problem: John Silber (R.I.P.) Didn't Believe in Soft Answers

Friday, September 28, 2012

If there was ever a serious candidate for governor of Massachusetts who was more unique than John Silber, the retired B.U. president who died yesterday at age 86, I am not aware of him.
On the campaign trail, who else but Silber would have said, “When you’ve had a long life and you’re ripe, then it’s time to go,” when discussing the need to direct more resources from the elderly to the young?
Who else but Silber would have said, “There’s no point in my making a speech on crime control to a bunch of drug addicts,” when asked why he had not campaigned more frequently in the minority sections of Boston?
Who else but Silber would have answered, “In 1965,” to the question from Newsweek in 1990 if he had ever been wrong?
And who else but Silber could have mishandled so spectacularly a routine question about his “weaknesses” from an admired TV news anchorwoman?
Remember the scene? 
It was shortly before the November, 1990, gubernatorial election.  Democratic nominee Silber was decisively ahead of the Republican candidate, Bill Weld, in the polls when Natalie Jacobson came to interview Silber in what was supposed to be the heart-warming confines of his Brookline home.  It was a standard soft-news feature. 
We go now to the transcript:
Jacobson:  “What do you see as your strength and, if you will, if you think you have one, a weakness?”
Silber: “I think that my strength is competence and my strength is honesty.”
Jacobson: “OK, and your weakness?”
Silber: “You find the weakness.  I don’t have to go around telling you what’s wrong with me.  The media have manufactured about 16,000 non-existing qualities that are offensive and attributed them all to me.  Let them have their field day.”
At that time, TV viewers pretty much equated Natalie Jacobson with the Blessed Virgin Mary, or at least June Cleaver.  Not for nothing did her media brethren call her “the News Madonna.”  Silber thus appeared in that interview as an angry, disrespectful, humorless lout.  People were outraged for the Madonna’s sake!
In retrospect, it’s kind of hard to believe, but true: that one, strange moment on TV destroyed Silber’s candidacy and made Weld governor.
John Silber had a Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale.  He was a brilliant man and a visionary leader, steadfast in his convictions and fearless in conflict. Even as you disagreed with the positions he took, you had to admire his courage and ability to stand alone against an army of opponents
Without him, Boston University would not have become the great university it is today. 
But Silber had at least one serious character defect: he was a bully.
I remember talking with someone who had worked closely with Silber in the Massachusetts Department of Education during the years Silber served as chairman of the Board of Education, 1995-99.
“At first, I was taken aback by him, his confrontational, in-your-face way of running everything,” said this gentleman, who held a very high position himself in the agency.  “But the more I observed him, the more I saw it was an act, a routine.  He operated through intimidation. 
“John Silber was like the bullies we all run into when we’re kids.  What do you do with a bully?  You stand up to them.  You push back.  You fight.  That’s what I did with Silber, and things started to change.  I felt like I had his number, and he knew it.  We had no real problems after that.”

It's Time for Every Smart Kid to Consider a Career in the State Police or at UMass

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Attention parents of college-age children! 
Stop worrying about giving the right career advice to your kids, and simply direct them to the recent Boston Business Journal blog post by Craig Douglas, the publication’s managing editor for online vertical products and research.  (Being an old guy, I have no idea what Douglas’s title means.)
Headlined “State pays out $100k-plus pensions to over 200 retirees,” the post can be found at:

It’s rare the child who takes the long view of his career, and who has the perspicacity to contemplate how much dough he’ll need four decades hence to enjoy his golden years like some kind of British lord.
But if you happen to be the proud progenitor of such a child, and that child asks you earnestly one day, “Daddy, what can I do to improve my odds of a comfy retirement,” do not hesitate to respond, “Son, getting on the state payroll is never a bad bet.”   
In support of that advice, refer enthusiastically to “State pays out $100k-plus pensions to over 200 retirees,” which is filled with the names of retired state police officers, college presidents and administrators, and judges, all of whom are listed along with the pension amounts they receive monthly and annually.
Of course, there are many thousands of state retirees and most of them don’t come close to winning the kind of pension bonanzas that allow for the upkeep of two residences – a house in Massachusetts and a seaside condo, say, in Florida -- luxurious travel to foreign countries, and crazy gifts for the grandchildren.  (“I just knew you wanted your own horse, Olivia.”) 
The Douglas post points out that the average public pension in Massachusetts is around $26,000 a year.  Two thousand bucks a month doesn't go very far.
And there’s always the chance the gravy train will end one day in the foreseeable future for the pension high-enders of Massachusetts, as I, a person who has to look up the spelling of “actuary” before writing it, dared to hypothesize in an August 10, 2012, blog post headlined, “Won’t Happen Tomorrow, But the Six-Figure Public Pension Is Headed for Extinction.”
In the meantime, kids, get yourselves some applications to the State Police.

Romney's Painful Week Will Go Down as the Turning Point

Friday, September 21, 2012

We’re too close to the controversy today to know if Mitt Romney’s newly revealed comments at a private Florida event for campaign donors in May will be the turning point in this presidential election.
But if I had to make a $10,000 bet with the former Massachusetts governor on that, I’d bet they will. 
Late on the night of Tuesday, November 6, after Romney finishes his concession speech, the commentators will say President Obama began to run away with the race when it became known that Romney feels that the 47% of Americans who pay no federal income taxes are: (a) dependent on the government, (b) consider themselves “victims,” and (c) refuse to take responsibility for their own lives.
Romney’s basing his campaign on his success in business, and on how his superior grasp of economics and free enterprise will enable him to turn the economy around in the big way that has eluded Obama.
He’s a businessman who functioned very well in our system and made himself into a millionaire by being very smart, very strategic and very hard working.  There’s nothing wrong with that, nothing at all -- unless you happen to need the votes of millions of average folks to realize your life’s dream: the presidency of the United States.
Most voters do not own their own businesses, have a portfolio of stocks, or pull down six figures a year in one of the professions or in a top management position.  Most have to answer to a boss every day.  When the guy who signs their paychecks says frog, they leap.
Let's face it: most voters have a thing about CEOs. 
Because they live their lives in a weaker, less comfortable position than the men at the top of the heap, most feel that the CEOs don’t really care about them, that, in fact, the CEOs inwardly believe they are much better than people like themselves, the "little people."
Romney may have had a chance to convince the majority of voters he wasn’t that kind of CEO and that he could be trusted with their votes.
Then what he said behind closed doors to a bunch of wealthy people in Boca Raton came out, and, all across America, people started believing Romney was that kind of CEO.
The election is six weeks away.  A lot can happen in the world and in presidential politics between now and November 6 to give Romney a break.
Certainly, Romney has time to recover.
But the tough-as-nails political pros in Chicago who run Obama’s campaign are not likely to squander the advantage Romney has given them. 
Romney’s been knocked down by his own punch. (The cliché applies: self-inflicted wounds are always the worst.)  The Chicago crew will do everything it can to keep him down. 
We’re about to see masters at work.

Good Luck, Mayor Mike, as You Head to that Infamous 'Gauntlet of Cheap Shots'

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Governor’s Council is an eight-headed dinosaur on the Massachusetts political landscape.
It’s a confounding relic of the 17th and 18th centuries, when its members served as a necessary check on the powers of the colonial governor.  The colonial governor went back to England; the Governor’s Council defies banishment.
In the 21st century, the Council’s role as examiner and confirmer of judicial nominees could be assumed by another arm of elected government, say the Massachusetts Senate, or by a new committee comprised of the attorney general, the chief justice of the state supreme court, and the president of the state bar association.
Getting rid of the Governor’s Council would save the state at least $400,000 a year -- and probably a lot more over the long haul when we no longer had retired councilors collecting pensions and using the state retiree health system.
Best of all, it would put an end to The Theater of the Inane that Governor’s Council meetings frequently become. 
The demise of the Governor’s Council is like the cure for baldness:  people have been talking about it forever; it just never happens. 
How old is this talk?  Mike Dukakis was representing Brookline in the House when he first proposed abolishing it.  And he wasn’t the first to push the idea, not by a long shot.
But if we the people of this great Commonwealth are fated to have the Governor’s Council always with us, as seems the case, I’m glad someone like Mike Albano, the former mayor of Springfield, is going to be on it soon.
“Mayor Mike,” as he is called still in Western Massachusetts, eight-plus years after leaving office, won a tough three-way Democratic primary election for the Eighth District Governor’s Council seat on September 6, and is now the odds-on favorite to beat the Republican nominee, Michael Franco, who’s making his fourth try for the job.
Michael J. Albano is one of the most charming, mature and even-tempered souls you could ever meet, an astute, natural-born, people-loving-and-loved pol in the classical mold.
Besides being the first and only person ever elected to four consecutive terms as Springfield mayor, he holds the distinction of having been appointed successively to the Massachusetts Parole Board by three governors of very different political stripes: Ed King in 1982, Mike Dukakis in 1987 and Bill Weld in 1992.
I always thought Albano, who holds an undergraduate degree from Springfield College and two master’s degrees, would have made a good candidate for governor.  At 61, he’s still young enough to go for it, but I guess he never saw himself in that grand office on the third floor of the State House. 
When he wins that election in November, Albano will be succeeding Tom Merrigan of Greenfield, who decided in March not to run for a fourth two-year term because of his busy private law practice and the frequent trips he has to take out of state as the executive vice president and general counsel of Easton Bell Sports.
Merrigan, who served as a district court judge before being elected to the Governor’s Council, endeared himself to a lot of State House observers in May of 2011 when he spoke honestly about the egomania, the personal agendas, and the incomprehensible animosities that too often turn Council meetings into grudge-fests where the judges-to-be get beaten up in the confusion.
“We pass judgment on the temperament and professionalism of (judicial) nominees, but we exhibit none of what we are expecting from the people who sit before us,” Merrigan told the State House News Service.  “What’s going on there now is a deterrent to the willingness of people to apply (for judgeships). It’s a deterrent to people who have to ask themselves, ‘Do I want to subject myself to this gauntlet of cheap shots that is not honest and is not appropriate?’ ”
Despite his professionalism, Merrigan couldn’t stop that gauntlet from forming, nor could Merrigan’s legendary predecessor, the late Eddie O’Brien, father of former State Treasurer Shannon O’Brien.  It’s hoping too much to think Albano will. 
It’s deathly hard to change the look of a relic.

If Scott Brown Wins, Democrats May Turn Their Lonely Eyes to Tom Conroy

Friday, September 7, 2012

Democrats are hoping that Elizabeth Warren is to senator what Deval Patrick was to governor: someone who comes out of nowhere to capture a highly coveted, powerful position in her first run ever for public office.

The only thing is, they don’t make Deval Patricks every day of the week.

Our governor has been in office for six years and often seems to dominate, rather effortlessly, the news.  We’re so used to him as governor that it’s easy to forget he was a longshot when he announced for governor in 2005.

Patrick was then considered the least likely to succeed in a primary election field of three Democrats, including the sitting attorney general, Tom Riley, and a popular entrepreneur and philanthropist, Chris Gabrieli, who had run for Congress in 1998 and lieutenant governor in 2002 as the nominee on a ticket headed by State Treasurer Shannon O’Brien.

Of course, Deval Patrick had a platinum resume and a compelling personal narrative, having risen from a poor household on the South Side of Chicago to Milton Academy, Harvard University, Harvard Law and President Clinton’s Justice Department, and then on to remunerative work as a lawyer for corporate giants Coca Cola and Texaco. 

All that would have meant nothing, however, if Patrick had not also been blessed with rare political gifts.  He was a warm, smooth and indefatigable campaigner, an inspiring speaker, and a natural before the television cameras.  Most important, he had a surplus of that essential ingredient of political success: likability.

Seldom do rookie politicians, and more seldom still, 50-year-old rookies, arrive in such a complete package.

Go up to the Massachusetts State House and ask legislators at random about their rookie campaigns for public office.  You’ll hear how hard it was, the first time out of the gate, to get elected state rep.  They’ll also say that, if your first foray in politics is a state senate race, you’re almost bound to fail, (as the estimable Joseph Kearns Goodwin of Concord learned to his chagrin last night).

Now comes Elizabeth Warren, a rookie pol at 63.  A self-made woman from a down-on-its-luck Oklahoma family and a distinguished professor of law, Warren has never held elective office, even one as humble as school board member.  Yet she believes she’s the one to take the seat of the political phenom who took Ted Kennedy’s seat: Scott Brown.  Maybe she’s right.  We’ll find out in less than two months.

Did you watch her speech at the Democratic Convention in Charlotte the other night?  It was a good speech, with an undercurrent of working class grievance just right for the audience of party stalwarts.  As the frequent interruptions of applause indicated, she delivered it well, although I thought she was a little too hyper and a little too wide-eyed at times.   

Now if I had walked off the staid campus of Harvard University and found myself one night, several months later, addressing thousands of jacked-up politicos in a convention hall and millions of my fellow Americans on television, I’d be excited out of my mind.  My eyes would have a positively wild sheen.  No matter what I was saying, I would be thinking:  “I’m speaking to world! They’re listening to ME.  I’m going to be a Senator, a United Freaking States Senator!”

Elizabeth Warren may have killed in Charlotte.  But will she play in Charlton?

Will the Warren package of super-bright lawyer, super-accomplished career woman, acknowledged champion of consumer rights and Democratic Party avenger add up to a likable whole? 

Will she have the indefinable “stuff” to do what has seldom been done before in the modern era: move in one leap from private citizen to member of one of the most exclusive clubs in the world, the U.S. Senate?

Is it possible for her new, untested brand to eclipse the well-established Scott Brown product, with its handsome, friendly exterior and its common-sense, just-folks interior? 

She and Brown may be neck-and-neck in the polls, but my guess is that will change as Massachusetts voters look ever closer at the candidates as the election nears and the candidates begin debating face-to-face.

One bit of unsolicited advice for Brown: Don’t be tempted to slug it out, point by point, with Warren in those debates. 

This is a woman who received a debate-team scholarship to George Washington University when she was 16 years old.  When battle-tested in D.C., she stood up like granite to Republican senators criticizing how she aggressively pursued the implementation of the federal Consumer Protection Act of 2010 as a special assistant to President Obama.

Brown’s got that nice brand firmly set in the minds of the Massachusetts electorate.  When sharing the stage with Warren, all he has to be is likable Scotty Brown, no matter what she throws at him -- and avoid getting nasty or cutting with her.

As I watched Warren revving up the troops at the convention, I found myself thinking how she is similar to Mitt Romney, of all people, in how she used her reputation, stature, and fund-raising chops to dispatch her Democratic primary opponents.

You probably remember how Romney and his minions moved aside the acting governor, Jane Swift, in 2002 to become the Republican nominee.  The state’s first woman governor was basically annihilated, politically speaking, by the wealthy hero of the Salt Lake City Olympics.   He took the GOP nomination because he could.  Hey, that's politics.

But do you recall the names of the six Democrats who were in the Senate race last year when Warren, urged on by national and state leaders of the party, began exploring a candidacy.  It wasn’t long before she was drawing most of the media’s attention and most of the contributions from Democratic bigwigs.  One by one, her outgunned opponents dutifully shuffled off the stage: Herb Robinson, Bob Massie, Setti Warren, Alan Khazei, Tom Conroy and Marissa DeFranco.

Of those six, the one I feel the most regret for is Tom Conroy, a three-term state rep from Wayland.  He holds three college degrees: a bachelor’s from Yale, a master’s in international economics from Johns Hopkins University, and an M.B.A. in finance from Boston University. He’s worked in refugee resettlement programs in Southeast Asia and in Haiti, as a foreign policy and national security assistant to Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, and as a management consultant.  He and his wife, Sarah, are the parents of four beautiful children.  While maybe not as movie star handsome as Scott Brown, Conroy is a tall, athletic, photogenic and energetic  50-year-old.  He’s as articulate as a college professor and as approachable as a church greeter.

Should Warren lose to Brown, there will be many Democrats, in my opinion, who will look back and wonder if it would have been better if Conroy had somehow stayed the course and become the nominee.  I can hear them now in their alternative universe:

“Sure it was ‘only’ some rep races, but Conroy had run and won before.  He could have caught fire statewide.  Scott Brown was a man of the legislature.  HE did it.”