BOSTON -- They wince and they flinch, but liberal Democrats, torn between a Reagan-Bush Democrat and a conservative Republican, seem to be inching their way into the camp of John Silber, the irascible academic who wants to succeed Michael S. Dukakis as governor of Massachusetts.
Silber, on-leave Boston University president, has won national notoriety for the brusqueness of his remarks on blacks, women, Cambodians and the press. He is the idol of the angry voter, who rejoices, as a South Weymouth postal worker put it, "to hear someone saying what everyone's thinking" -- things they've been told they shouldn't say themselves.
Liberals shudder at "Silber shockers." They do not know if he simply blurts out his rough thoughts about Lowell, the hard-hit industrial city, becoming the Cambodian capital of the country, and working mothers who "neglect" their children by putting them in inferior day-care centers.
They suspect these "shockers" are deliberate, a function of demagoguery, not of pedagogy as his handlers insist. In a city with a history of intolerance and a seemingly infinite capacity for resenting those who came after, "it's just what we don't need," a young black waiter at the Ritz Carlton Hotel observed.
Silber is a diminutive, compelling presence with a narrow, furrowed face and a deformed right arm that is almost defiantly revealed by the cut of his coat sleeve. He has a near-genius reputation for pulling Boston University from mediocrity to affluence and prestige -- although some former faculty members compare him to Mussolini.
"You don't have to be a nasty person to make difficult decisions," said a woman lawyer, a lifelong Democrat who is voting for Silber's Republican opponent, William Weld.
An affable WASP, tall, blond, charming Weld was supposed to provide an easy way out for nervous, non-hating Democrats. A Harvard summa, married to a Roosevelt, a bluestocking who teaches Chinese law and has five children, Weld seemed typecast for the part of the high-minded moderate Yankee for whom Democrats love to vote from time to time. Weld's resignation as head of the Criminal Division of the Reagan Justice Department in protest of policies of Edwin Meese III, had an Elliot Richardson ring locally.
But gradually, and painfully, liberals are learning that Weld has blocked the exits. For one thing, he is espousing, although with ever-ebbing fervor, the Citizens for Limited Taxation referendum, which would roll back taxes to the 1988 level and gut state social programs. The state is already deep into recession and Weld, sensing recoil on the left, has said he would hold off for six months in applying CLT.
"Just the kind of shuffling that got us into this mess in the first place," fumed a Norwell school official who is drifting away from Weld to Silber, whom she once regarded as unendurably arrogant. Now she is ready to listen to Silber's passionate presentation of a scheme to put 3-year-old children in year-round, day-long day-care centers. He says he can finance them through money saved by reducing top-heavy bureaucracies in the school system, and cutting back on excessive personnel.
Weld has just handed Silber another weapon: the gun control issue. Massachusetts has the country's toughest gun laws, and Weld has just announced he is opposed to a ban on semi-automatic weapons.
"He wants to let people have AK-47s and Uzis in the back of the car," said a computer programmer from Ashland who had been sliding toward Weld.
Silber recently called Weld "a back-stabbing son of a bitch" for turning on Meese whom he knew to be an influence-peddler when he took the Justice Department job.
"I wish he hadn't said it," said a pro-Silber Marblehead housewife . "I know he comes on strong. But we need strong medicine. This state is sick."
"I'm just hanging in," said a West Roxbury schoolteacher after Silber got into an on-camera spat with local TV anchorwoman Natalie Jacobson -- one of three media feuds in which he is embroiled. "I cringe when I think of what he might say at a governors' conference."
One thing Silberites understand is that the ultimate guilt trip for the liberals would be if by electing him they were to launch him onto the national scene and give the party yet another divisive and uncontrollable figure. His thoughts on foreign policy make their hair stand straight up: He was more militantly pro-contra than Oliver North, and he voted for Ronald Reagan twice because he so opposed what he calls "unilateral disarmament."
If he wins next Tuesday, Silber almost inevitably comes into consideration for things beyond the State House.