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.”

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