For politicians, Massachusetts has traditionally been a special place. What high school football is to Texas and what horse racing is to Kentucky, politics has been to Massachusetts: a year-round passion and a grownup's profession. Over the years, it has featured more authentic characters -- some colorful, others shameless -- than are comprised within the entire Rocky Mountain time zone. "The Last Hurrah," you may have noticed, was not inspired by Denver or Phoenix.
Lately, however, engaging rogues had become an endangered species in the politics of that state, which had recast itself as the national home office of interest-group liberalism. That should change with the smashing victory of Boston University president John Silber in the Democratic gubernatorial primary last month. Silber's upset win may have dealt a lethal blow to conventional interest-group liberalism. That would be good news for Massachusetts and even better news for the Democratic Party, which has, in the judgment of American voters, subcontracted its own integrity and independence to every organized caucus with its own nonnegotiable demand and fax machine.
John Silber was not endorsed and in many cases was passionately opposed by the public employees' unions, the teachers' unions, the feminist lobby, the environmentalist lobby, the gay lobby, and organized labor. Lt. Gov. Evelyn Murphy, who withdrew before the primary vote, was the favorite of a number of these and former attorney general Frank Belloti, the party-endorsed candidate, of the rest.
John Silber, meanwhile, as though he had not already made enough enemies, went out of his way to take on the press as well, charging it with distortion in its coverage of his candidacy. His bad press, however, may have been less the product of media bias (although there was evidence of that in the coverage) and more an indictment of the press's inability to cover the campaign of a candidate who delivered academic lectures on the campaign trail instead of sound bites.
In this Silber was not untypical of other academic figures who have entered politics. The campaign trail becomes simply a larger classroom where a good teacher allows nobody in the back row to doze off. That often means the teacher-politician waxes deliberately controversial, provocative and even outrageous. The second characteristic of such a teacher politician is an apparently irresistible urge to prove to every gathering that he is the smartest person in that room. Check the speeches of Woodrow Wilson, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Judge Robert Bork.
Politically, the maverick Silber most closely resembles Pat Moynihan, but sadly without the New York senator's wit and charm. Silber is a Texan, an unapologetic New Dealer, and the advocate of aggressive, activist government. Take the case of Chelsea, a sad, almost third-world little city on Boston's doorstep where poverty and corruption had turned the public school system into a disaster area. In a total rejection of the "trust the market to do it" approach of the Reagan-Bush years, Silber was field marshal for Boston University's takeover of Chelsea's public schools. This is no ivory tower type, no process-oriented liberal. Silber is a man who believes devoutly in himself and in the effectiveness of direct action.
The 1990 Massachusetts governor's race could be the nation's best in a melancholy political year. A Republican nominee, William Weld, who resigned as chief of the Justice Department's criminal division to protest the conduct of his boss, Ed Meese, is smart and able. Weld will seek to be the Character Candidate to an electorate that understandably feels betrayed by the disappearing act that the "Massachusetts Miracle" turned out to be.
Weld will seek to make much of Silber's unapologetic opposition to a libertarian anti-tax initiative which will be on the November ballot to wipe out the state's last two tax increases.
In the judgment of Democratic pollster Tom Kiley, "Voters want to cut out all the political underbrush." And an awful lot of them think, according to Kiley, John Silber has the "guts, fire and toughness to do it." Democrats may never be the same again.