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

April 01, 1990|ARLENE LEVINSON | ASSOCIATED PRESS

BOSTON — 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.

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