Remembering Silber’s race for governor

John Silber’s death this week at age 86 is another one of those markers of local history, a moment to reflect on the past and consider how certain events have shaped our times.

The Boston University president’s gubernatorial race in 1990 was remarkable for what it was not – it was decidedly not a logical extension of the prior eight years of governance under Michael Dukakis.  It was, rather, a reversal of significant proportions, a reflection of the general public discontent of those economically stressful times and a return to the more conservative leanings of the state Democratic Party.  And so it was natural for many progressive Democrats, and many “Bellotti” Democrats, to turn their backs on Silber (as I did) and support William Weld.

Our anger toward Silber was misplaced. Silber, unlike Bellotti, understood the tenor of those times and filled a gap in the public discourse that was begging to be filled.  Brutus, in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, provides the best expression of what was happening then:

“There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.”

John Silber took the swift current of those times, he rode the wave and gave voice to the frustration of thousands of citizens who were left dismayed and disoriented at the collapse of the Dukakis-inspired “Massachusetts miracle.”

Remembering Silber as a political caricature – as the angry man responding to Natalie Jacobson’s innocuous questions – does no service to the man, or to the role he played in shaping the state’s future.  Elections matter.  Had Bellotti won the primary contest, the final election would have been much more of a blur of similar ideologies, for both Bellotti and Weld shared pretty much the same middle-of-the-road values, both socially progressive and to the right of Dukakis on fiscal issues.

Bellotti was a consummate politician, and he had beaten Weld several years earlier in a race for Attorney General, so my guess is that the election would likely have gone down to the wire. It was an election contest that was not to be. In a strange reversal of roles, Weld was able to beat Silber in part by winning the support of progressive Democrats and Independents (and disgruntled Bellotti supporters like me) who had previously been part of the Dukakis coalition, and who viewed Silber as an unacceptably conservative nominee.

I think Silber would have been frustrated by the realities of governing.  Governors cannot behave like university presidents and expect to get much done. The Legislature has historically been not an ungovernable herd of cats, but rather a docile collection of politicians who gladly cede power to a House Speaker and a Senate President. Thus, there are really three governors, not one, and not much can get done without the three reaching a consensus.

Reaching consensus was right up Bill Weld’s alley – he had strong interpersonal skills and was able to quickly forge a strong working alliance with Senate President William Bulger. Although Bulger had supported Silber in the primary, my suspicion is that those two strong-willed men would have clashed, because in contrast to Weld, they both took the work of politics and governance (and themselves) very seriously.

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Silber’s nomination in 1990 had many repercussions.  It marked the clear ideological end of the Dukakis era, and it finished Frank Bellotti’s political career.  And since Silber did not have any interest in leading the party once he lost to Weld, it meant that the Democratic Party was left somewhat adrift to search for its next gubernatorial leader.

Through Mark Roosevelt and Scott Harshbarger and Shannon O’Brien, that leadership consistently failed to win the corner office.  Each had worked through the ranks, and served in office with notable skill and achievement, but they could not make the sale.  Like Silber, it took another insurgent, a man who had not run for office before and who understood and spoke to the tenor of his times, to recapture the governorship.  There may be a lesson there for the next season of gubernatorial hopefuls.

James Aloisi was Secretary of Transportation in 2009. He is the author of The Vidal Lecture: Sex and Politics in Massachusetts and the Persecution of Chief Justice Robert Bonin.