To This Angry Man, Soft Words Are the Refuge of Scoundrels

updated 10/29/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 10/29/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

John Silber has never been one to hide his brain under a bushel. Even Henry Kissinger recalls being taken aback by Silber's arrogance when the two of them served on a federal commission on Central America in the early '80s. Silber, the president of Boston University, argued his pro-contra views with such vehemence that an exasperated Kissinger pronounced him "obnoxious." It wasn't until sometime later. Kissinger says, that Silber finally "assumed I was nearly as smart as he was," and they were able to get along.

Anyone who can lecture Kissinger on foreign affairs and live to tell the tale shouldn't be underestimated. Yet when Silber, 64, announced earlier this year that he was taking a leave of absence from BU to run for Governor of Massachusetts, few political pros gave him much of a chance. Then Silber stunned everyone by winning the Democratic nomination in September, and now he's running neck and neck with his moderate Republican opponent. William Weld—all the while touching off countless little fire storms of controversy. The uproar has little to do with Silber's policies, which are a liberal-conservative mix (though he favors the death penalty for drug kingpins and says he voted twice for Ronald Reagan and once for George Bush, he is also pro-choice and pro-gun control). Rather, it is Silber's relentlessly abrasive style—especially the provocative comments known as Silber shockers—that have led some opponents to question whether he is temperamentally fit to govern.

Unlike most politicians, Silber does not shy from giving offense. In one speech he argued that funds for medical care be redirected from the old and infirm to the young, declaring. "When you've had a long life and you're ripe, then it's time to go." Earlier, he suggested none too obliquely that Cambodian émigrés were settling in Massachusetts primarily to take advantage of the state's generous welfare programs. And only last month, asked why he had not delivered an address in Boston's predominantly black Roxbury area, Silber shot back: "There's no point in my making a speech on crime control to a bunch of drug addicts."

Such comments have brought Silber both scorn and support. "He has made explicit the fears and prejudices of many people." says Paul Watanabe. a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. "Whether calculated or not, there is no doubt that the Silber shockers have been directed at the most vulnerable elements of society—blacks and the elderly." Faced with a mounting state budget deficit and spreading unemployment, many Massachusetts voters indeed seem eager for a powerful antidote of any sort to the bland, ultimately ineffective leadership of Gov. Michael Dukakis. Silber's Roxbury remark may not have helped him, but it clearly didn't hurl. Before he made it, polls showed him trailing his principal Democratic opponent in the primary by some 19 percentage points; a week later he romped to a 10-point victory.

Though he expressed regret for his "drug addicts" comment, Silber insists, with some justification, that many of his shockers aren't nearly as inflammatory as they seem. As for medical care for the elderly, "I wasn't talking about pushing old people off cliffs," says Silber. Instead, he maintains, he was merely questioning the wisdom of spending enormous sums to extend failing lives for a few days or months. "It's not the truth that's shocking," Silber says. "It's shocking that somebody is telling the truth."

The son of an architect and a schoolteacher. Silber is a native Texan, born in San Antonio, and a graduate of Trinity University. There he met Kathryn Underwood, his wife of 43 years and mother of his seven children (they also have one ward). Later, at Yale Divinity School, he considered becoming a minister. Instead he switched programs and got a doctorate in philosophy.

A brilliant student, Silber landed a teaching job at the University of Texas in 1955. In 1967 he became dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, which brought him both prestige and trouble. His mission, as he saw it, was to bolster academic standards, and during his tumultuous 2½-year reign he clashed repeatedly with the state Board of Regents and with the faculty over what they regarded as his high-handed efforts to get rid of teachers he deemed poorly qualified: Finally, in 1970, he was fired.

Though praised by those who know him best as a warm and compassionate friend, Silber's reputation as imperious and even mean spirited has dogged him throughout his career. Over the years, many amateur psychologists have suggested that Silber's antagonistic personality may be traced to the fact that he was born with an undeveloped right arm that extends to elbow length, which made him the object of taunts as a youngster. That, says Silber, is nonsense. "I was 4½ years old before I knew I had one arm," he says. "My perception of my body is that it looks damn close to Superman's." Indeed, Silber makes no effort to conceal his deformity with his shirts and suits.

The best and the worst in Silber's personality emerged during his tenure at Boston University, which began in 1971. Even his most vigorous critics credit him with turning the school around financially and boosting its once lackluster academic reputation. "There is no denying that BU is a vastly superior institution than it was 20 years ago," says John Madden, editor of the university's Daily Free Press. Yet the deepest enmity toward Silber comes from some members of the BU faculty, who feel that this progress was achieved at a price. "He became a little dictator," says Howard Zinn, a professor emeritus of political science, who last August circulated a document signed by 92 present and former faculty members and students protesting the Silber regime. "He made this his domain and went to work crushing dissent. He created an atmosphere of fear. He has built more buildings and acquired more real estate. But Italy prospered under Mussolini too."

Silber dismisses such criticism as so much carping from second-raters. And. in any case, he is fond of observing that a university is not a democracy. But the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is. And it seems fair to wonder whether he would flourish in the world of statehouse politics, where imperfect compromise is the order of the day, and whether ultimately his combative style will wear well with voters. Silber himself seems confident that he will win the general election. But defeat would not shatter him. "Psychologically speaking, my head is still on straight whether I win or lose," he says. "I know where the North Star is."

—Bill Hewitt, Dirk Mathison and S. Avery Brown in Boston

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