Tom Finneran: Remembering John Silber
Friday, October 05, 2012
Our loss is the loss that a society suffers when a gimlet eye dims and finally closes. And our loss is the loss that a society suffers when a discerning soul, impatient with injustice, is laid to rest. I have no doubt that John is in heaven and that heaven had better be absolutely perfect---otherwise, he’ll give God a mighty headache.
He almost became the Governor of Massachusetts in 1990. Bill Weld of course won that race, but only after John Silber had lost it. The whole race seemed to have a Shakespearean feel to it. The immensely talented Frank Bellotti was in that race. So too was the patient and wise Evelyn Murphy. Each of them suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune when the electorate turned angrily upon any candidate with a prior record of public service. The economic and political status quo had become horrific in the aftermath of the collapse of the “Massachusetts Miracle” and the people were taking scalps, not prisoners.
John Silber stepped on to the political stage as a protest candidate but not as a fringe candidate. He could and would drive political consultants crazy but he tapped into the public anger in an extraordinary way. He was never bland. The public was angry. He was angry too. The public was judgmental. He was judgmental too. The public was impatient. He was impatient too. But these were no tricks of sorcery or of managing mirrors. John gave voice and articulation to an immense fury that pathetic little political games were being played out while the real future of Massachusetts was being blithely ignored. In his impatient, judgmental, full-throated roar, he became the candidate of “the barber shops”.
It doesn’t happen often but when it does happen, that’s where you can detect it. In the chatter of the barber shops, and barrooms, where someone says “did you hear what Silber said yesterday?” and another patron immediately responds “you know I really like that guy—he’s just what Beacon Hill needs.”
Such was the scene being set during the campaign of 1990 as Silber barnstormed across the state.
There is no need to retell the story of the early months and final weeks of the election itself. I knew, in some limited way, every one of the candidates and they were all impressive. They all would have been good and responsible Governors. And while the “but fors” and the “what ifs” of campaigns always make for fascinating political chatter, imagining John Silber as Governor of Massachusetts is in the Hall of Fame for speculation and pure pleasure.
Curiously enough, it was Bill Weld himself who saw the gifts of John Silber and brought them to bear upon the shame of America in the late 20th century. John Silber’s impatience and anger and judgmental persona were used as proper weapons against the continuing decline of education in America. He could not abide mediocrity. He would not indulge fad. Cant had no place in his universe. And woe betide those who counseled wishy-washy PC euphemisms for students who were failing. He unerringly saw the crucial importance of the MCAS exams as a diagnostic tool for educators, comparing them to the x-rays and imaging which make the miracles of modern medicine possible. He understood that the battles over curriculum frameworks would require constancy and vigilance. He was ready for those battles. He was an ally of whom to dream and a foe with whom to reckon. Ask his many allies.
Ask his many foes.
The word leadership encompasses many things and, when actually encountered in the real world, it can seem to have internal contradictions. But it does not. One can be very impatient, almost harsh about certain things and still be a superb leader. Absolute impatience with prevailing nonsense is a good and necessary thing. And John was absolutely impatient with such nonsense.
He was supremely intelligent, always decisive, more than occasionally kind, and singularly generous. The students of Massachusetts were blessed by his work. We have lost a vital and memorable leader.
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