BOSTON -- Five months ago, John H. Silber was engaged in an uphill fight even to get 15 percent of the votes at the Massachusetts Democratic convention, the minimum requirement for a place on the September primary ballot. Today, having won that primary and having bested his Republican opponent, former U.S. attorney William Weld, in the first television debate, he has put himself in a strong position to capture the Massachusetts governorship. That office served its present occupant, Michael S. Dukakis, as a springboard to his party's presidential nomination.
Even in an election year, that clearly promises victories by many folks who are campaigning as "outsiders," the prospect of Silber -- who has spent a lifetime in academia and never run for public office -- moving into the national spotlight as governor of Massachusetts is mind-boggling.
Having watched this rapid ascent from the Springfield convention hall to his victory in the primary over former Atty. Gen. Frank Bellotti and Lt. Gov. Evelyn Murphy, and his skillful parrying of prosecutor Weld in their Oct. 18 debate, I guarantee you one thing. If the Boston University president becomes governor, he will quickly thereafter be a factor in presidential politics.
I say that because Silber is seized by a passionate desire not just to set things right in Massachusetts, as he claims, but to turn the national Democratic Party around from what he regards as 20 years of doctrinal and political error. He wants to wrench it back to where it was before Eugene McCarthy challenged Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and George McGovern defeated Humphrey in 1972.
Silber is convinced he knows what ails the Democrats -- "special-interest politics" -- and he will challenge anyone who disagrees with him. Woe betide Jesse Jackson, Mario Cuomo or any other damn liberal who disagrees.
Some of my journalistic colleagues are treating Silber simply as an opportunist, capitalizing on the voter anger in Massachusetts against the fiscal chaos of Dukakis' final two years, when taxes have gone up sharply just as the bottom has fallen out of the economy.
That misses the mark. As John Marttila, a Boston Democratic political consultant who has no special fondness for Silber, remarks: "Silber has made himself the issue in this race. He has forced the debate onto his terms. ... He never sounds trite or speaks in cliche's. He doesn't even seek to ingratiate himself by identifying with the voters. Instead, he speaks from his own anger and asks voters to identify with him."
That is a perfect description. And given the anger that is building all across this country about the performance of politicians, it takes no great imagination to see how Massachusetts' Angry Man could very quickly become a national figure.
I have good reason to recognize the anger in Silber, for he vented some of it on a previous column I wrote about his campaign, particularly on his exploitation of racial resentments against Cambodians and African Americans. Silber charged that this "was character assassination masquerading as journalism."
Since lots of people assume the two terms are nearly synonymous, that insult didn't bother me nearly as much as his saying I couldn't have watched the debate where he made comments that drew denunciations from black leaders, and must have been repeating a New York Times story that he said was also erroneous, distorted and a few other things. He was wrong. I had come to Boston to watch and report that debate for The Post. And having quit The Times for The Post 24 years ago, I rather resented the false charge that I was now reduced to cribbing from The Times.
Given this personal history, you will understand that I came back to Boston for the Silber-Weld debate nourishing a hope that Silber would provide some new outrage. He did not. He looked lame defending his views on the environment and his record on women's issues. But overall, he was in firm command of the aggressive Weld.
Early in the debate, he challenged Weld to join him in a pledge to refrain from "negative campaigning," a nice bit of hypocrisy from a man who had attacked Bellotti's supposed "corruption record" in one of the sleaziest ads of the year. But when Weld refused and continued to rake over Silber's record at the university and dredged up his past statements, Silber parried with a Ronald Reagan-like expression of pain that almost seemed to say, "There you go again."
Now that he is trying to keep the liberal Democrats who had supported Bellotti and Murphy from defecting to Weld, Silber is as high-minded as Mother Teresa. In the crucial first debate of the general election, it was a pretty convincing performance.
But as those who have known him from Texas days onward testify, the real John Silber is the angry, score-settling bully of the Democratic primary debates, with an ego as big as all outdoors. But don't underestimate him.
I repeat what I said last month -- the one statement in that column he did not seek to rebut: If Weld doesn't stop Silber, the national Democratic Party will have a tiger by the tail.