Texan Gunning for Massachusetts Governorship : Politics: John Silber’s take-no-prisoners style raises hackles and consciousness among more genteel Bay Staters.


John Silber’s most distinctive feature is not his deformed right arm, a stump he learned to use as a weapon in schoolyard scraps.

What is most physically striking are the furrows that crease his face, especially when he argues.

And those furrows are likely to deepen in the coming weeks as this Kant scholar who whipped Boston University into shape goes after the Democratic nomination for governor of Massachusetts.


The 63-year-old philosopher-turned-politician, a wiry man who stands just 5 feet 7, will take on anyone in an argument.

“I love it. I love it. It’s a sport,” he said, seated in his Spartan campaign office furnished with rented green leather couches, his blue eyes framed by a full head of brown hair. “It’s a participation sport. Some people like fencing, and I like arguing. Obviously I like arguing.”

A transplanted Texan now serving as president of Boston University, Silber is the squeaky wheel in a four-way race for the job that a politically weary Gov. Michael S. Dukakis no longer wants.

His competitors at the Democratic Party convention June 1-2 will be the lieutenant governor, a former state attorney general and a state lawmaker.

In his native Texas they would call John Silber a maverick. Argumentative as a child, combative as a scholar and daring as a university administrator, he is stirring up a storm of controversy.

First he complained about the state’s welfare largess and Cambodian immigrants in a way some people thought smacked of racism. Then he shared his views on alcoholism in a way critics said trivialized the problem.

And he raised hackles when he called Jews racist during an interview in which he recalled his attraction to Judaism as a 21-year-old divinity student at Yale University.

Silber said he considered converting but decided not to do so when he discovered “the racism of Jews is quite phenomenal” in treating converts as “second-class.” It was more than 10 years later, after his father died, that Silber learned his father was Jewish.

Silber fought back against the critics. He said he was misquoted, misunderstood and a victim of media distortion. He pointed out his unwavering support for minorities and Israel.

But if some in reserved New England call Silber a provocative outsider, that’s the way he likes it.

He thinks voters like it, too, and that the confrontational style he was weaned on in Texas works here as well.

“It also gets the point across in Massachusetts,” he said. “It may not be the style that some reporters like. It may not be the style that some people in universities like. But it’s a style that the taxpayers like a very great deal.”

Still, Silber is learning to turn down the fire on the hustings. After the first explosive weeks, he began minding what he said. He seems to have heeded his 95-year-old mother, who he said told him: “Son, your tongue will be your ruin.”

A wittier, circumspect John Silber demonstrated what he has learned on the campaign trail at a breakfast early in March with 150 members of the Lexington Chamber of Commerce.

Since coming to Massachusetts 19 years ago, he began, “I tried to tell the truth and shame the devil. Now I’ve heard I have to charm a few people at the same time.”

He cracked a joke about the once-touted Massachusetts economic miracle. “A miracle is a phenomenon for which there is no rational explanation. We had a Massachusetts mirage.”

The audience loved it.

Many said they came out of curiosity to hear the one interesting candidate around.

But they were enchanted after he said how he wanted to overhaul the state budget process to tighten spending and efficiency, how he wanted to weed out waste in state operations and “put an end to amateur hour” in running state agencies, how he was committed to improving education and stimulating the state economy with tax incentives.

The son of a German architect and a Texas schoolteacher, Silber is fond of saying he has been a Democrat since he was 10. He also voted for Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush. He labels himself both a populist and an elitist.

And for a political novice, he has shown a politician’s flair in making over Boston University and taking his message of education reform on the road.

“I could be speaking every night in this state, and that was before I announced for governor,” he said.

If you haven’t heard him speak, you can read: His book, “Straight Shooting: What’s Wrong With America and How to Fix It,” was published last year by Harper & Row.

Silber was educated at Trinity University in his hometown, San Antonio, and at Yale. He has six daughters and a son.

He was 44 when he took over Boston University 19 years ago. He had just been fired as dean of arts and sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, after years of discord between him and the Board of Regents over changes made in his department and his criticism of university policies.

As the president of Boston University, he transformed an academically uneven, debt-burdened school into a solid institution with 26,000 students, an endowment of $183 million and a budget nearing $500 million.

The early years of his term at the university were rough. Silber fought with faculty over politics, labor organizing and tenure. He survived attempted faculty coups and revolts.

Students and civil libertarians protested when he ordered the removal of anti-apartheid banners from dormitory windows and he limited overnight dorm visits by members of the opposite sex.

Silber wants to govern the state because, he said, he knows a better way and because he thinks public service is an obligation. If it gets any deeper than that, he won’t say.

“I think people who can serve and who can afford to take the financial sacrifice necessary to serve, every now and then, ought to do so.”

As president of Boston University, Silber gets $275,000 a year and a house. The governor earns $75,000 and that’s it. Massachusetts provides no governor’s mansion.

“A lot of people wouldn’t give up $200,000,” Silber said. “I don’t give a fig for money in that sense. Money never gave anybody a meaningful life.”

William Goetzmann, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian at the University of Texas, was on the faculty when Silber was running things there in 1969-70. Goetzmann is no Silber chum, but he respects him.

“I would regard him as a tough person, and yet underneath the sort of tough initial appearance or manner he can also be reasoned with,” Goetzmann said.

Goetzmann said Silber reminds him of Dukakis with that “sort of steely-eyed determination.”

“He puts all his guns on the bar,” Goetzmann said. “He is a doer.”

Silber has the support of Senate President William Bulger, one of the most powerful people at the Statehouse, and former Boston Mayor Kevin White, now a Boston University faculty member.