John R. Silber, the volcanic Democratic nominee for governor, has only a few weeks left on his year-long leave as president of Boston University. But instead of returning to the academic world, Silber has hinted over the past few days that he might be interested in a position in state politics.
In particular, the Democratic "straight shooter" has been considered by many to be a leading candidate for the head of the Massachusetts Democratic party. U.S. Rep. Chester G. Atkins (D-Mass.) announced this week that he would step down from that post.
Silber, who lost Tuesday's gubernatorial race by three percentage points to Republican William F. Weld '66, told reporters at a press conference last Thursday that he was "going to try to have as much influence as I can" in Massachusetts politics.
Polling numbers show that Silber has managed, over the last several months, to split the Democratic party into two factions. Many liberals abandoned the candidate for his callous comments on working mothers, nursing-home residents and welfare recipients, while social conservatives supported the candidate for his frank approach to fiscal management.
On the day after his election defeat, Silber blamed "kamikaze liberals" for abandoning the Democratic Party, according to a Boston Herald report. Exit polls conducted by the Herald revealed that a third of voting Democrats voted for Weld, a progressive Republican, over Silber.
And although Silber managed to win the Democratic primary by capturing a large number of Independent votes, his support among Democrats was less than overwhelming during the primary campaign: Many in the partypreferred the more liberal Evelyn F. Murphy andFrancis X. Bellotti.
With such tenuous support among state DemocratsSilber has little chance of snaring a top partypost, say some political analysts.
"I really can't believe it," said Hale Championlecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School ofGovernment and a lifelong Democrat. "He reallytook the nomination only because Independents canvote in the the Democratic party."
Students have also expressed their skepticismthat Silber, a fiscal conservative, could lead oneof the most liberal parties in the union. "In thefuture of the Democratic party, I don't see JohnSilber playing a leading role," said Neil A.Cooper '91, executive director of the CollegeDemocrats of America.
"Silber has played his role but now his time ispast," said Cooper, who admitted that Silber was astronger candidate than Bellotti for the generalelection.
Democratic functionaries were more sanguineabout Silber's chances. "If he's interested in it,I think he'll be a strong candidate," said JamesRoosevelt '68, legal cousel of the DemocraticParty.
Despite Silber's defeat, said Roosevelt, the64-year old Texan has reinvigorated the party."John Silber attracted more than a million voters,especially voters who had not voted before, so hehas brought a new element to the DemocraticParty," he said.
Although some critics contend that Silber couldnever bring liberals back into the fold, Rooseveltdiscounted any further internal strife that mightresult from his appointment as chair.
"I've never known any decision made within theDemocratic party without conflict," he said.
Rumors Abound at B.U.
At Boston University, faculty and students arein the dark regarding Silber's future with theinstitution.
Silber is slated to return to his post onJanuary I, but university administrators refusedto comment on the possibility that Silber maychoose to pursue other interests rather thanreturn to his post. A meeting of the universitytrustees is scheduled for next week.
Some have already indicated their approval ofSilber for the state's top party post. "I don'tthink that it would mean the end of the Democraticparty in Massachusetts by any stretch of theimagination," said David S. Palmer, professor ofLatin American studies at B.U.
"The possibility of running the Democraticparty is, I think, not incompatible, with hisremaining as president of B.U.," said Palmer.
"My guess is that if he became the head of theDemocratic party in the Commonwealth, it would bean interesting experience for all concerned,because he is a man who certainly does not leadlightly," he said.
Until recently, rumors were flying that drugczar and former Secretary of Education WilliamBennett would replace Silber as B.U. president.Bennett, however, publicly squashed those rumorson Thursday, after resigning from his post in theBush Administration.
"I am free of that world now," Bennett said ofthe liberal university environment. "Does theSoviet dissident wish to return as the head of thegulag?"
H. Joachim Maitre, dean of the college ofcommunications at B.U., thinks Silber is too goodfor the job of Democratic chair. Instead, Silberdeserves to be Harvard's next president, saysMaitre, an East German defector lured to B.U. bySilber.
"I don't think [the state party leader] is ajob for which he is suited. He's better thanthat," Maitre said. "I think he should bepresident of Harvard."
"He's been president of a university for 20years, and he's been in the running for governorof Massachusetts," Maitre said. "He clearly willhave to have something a lot more promising thanwhat he has now."
Silber has not been mentioned publicly as acandidate for president of Harvard, but Maitresaid that "if they haven't been talking to him, Ibelieve they should."
Boston University students contacted were splitin opinion over Silber's return.
"I think he will be a more effective leader nowthat he's a known figure. Hopefully, he canattract better faculty," said Tom Gill, a senior.
Leslie Roberts, a senior at the college,agreed. "He's a very strong character and his lossat the election won't alter his performance on thejob," said.
Other B.U. students said, though, that it wouldbe a good idea for Silber to leave.
"I feel good for the University that he'scoming back, in that the changes that he has madehere in the last 20 years have really beenphenomenal," sophomore Melissa C. O'Malley said."But I don't think that we should be guinea pigsfor his ideas when we don't have the power of theaverage voter, so I think a rest would be good forhim."
Junior Carl H. Ford agreed with O'Malley. "Ithink he's been really good for this university,but now, I personally feel he's almost more of ahindrance than a help. I guess I'd like him toleave."
Ford added that Silber could help theDemocratic party as chair. "I think he'd be prettygood for the Democratic party," Ford said. "He'llliven them up a bit and hopefully get them readyfor '92."
The president of the Harvard-RadcliffeDemocrats, a group which withheld its unanimoussupport for Silber during the campaign, disagreedwith the notion that the B.U. president would begood for the party.
"It's a sad state of affairs for theMassachusetts Democratic party if they can'tanybody better than John Silber," said James M.Harmon '93.