Early one evening in the 1990s, at a decent interval from the time John Silber snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and handed the Massachusetts governership to William Weld, I telephoned Kevin H. White to see if he would chat about the campaign.
I was calling to test a theory, which I hoped might lead to a novel, if I found the time to sit down and write it.
I was not alone in assuming that the former Boston mayor had been providing Silber with a seminar in the art of elective politics from the moment he decamped at Boston University. The mayor declined to seek reelection in 1983 after enduring years of intense scrutiny from Weld, a US Attorney fixated on White’s fundraising. Silber gave the mayor a stately and secure landing place as director of a BU political institute and professor of communications.
Fast forward to the late 1980s. Silber was becoming interested in running for governor in a potential matchup with Bill Weld. For White, a successful Silber run against Weld would even a raw political score. It might also give White the opportunity to stage manage on the national scene. White came close to the Democratic vice presidential nomination in 1972, and might have been a factor in the 1976 New Hampshire presidential primary had he not been derailed by the still smoldering school integration crisis.
Silber, brilliant and bristling, would have been an apt student. If White could somehow help him win the Massachusetts governorship in 1990, he would surely be positioned to make a splash in the 1992 New Hampshire primary. That field seemed potentially as weak as the one in 1976, a field the charismatic White would likely have dominated.
At least that was the theory I wanted to test with my phone call.
I had no idea whether White would talk to me. As a Globe staffer in the 1970s, I wrote a column called the White Watch, tracing many a mayoral tantrum and power trip; I later wrote a novel based on a Boston mayor with a Machiavellian bent and princely tastes. I hadn’t tried to talk to the mayor for years but after a White associate provided me with White’s private number, I placed the call.
White answered himself. He was pleasant and warmed to the subject when I brought up the Silber campaign. I mentioned that I had heard there were late-night strategy sessions with Silber at Rebecca’s on Charles Street, not far from White’s Beacon Hill home. White listened in silence, neither contradicting nor correcting. I told him I saw his hand all over the Silber campaign.
He didn’t deny or admit that. He did say the gubernatorial campaign had been locked up before that fatal Silber misstep with Channel 5’s Natalie Jacobson, just days before the voting. He also acknowledged that had Silber won the governorship, the path would have been clear to the 1992 presidential primary next door in New Hampshire. Silber would have been a formidable obstacle to Bill Clinton. With Silber in the way, there might have been no comeback for the Comeback Kid in that season of Jennifer Flowers.
I brought up the Silber Shockers as vintage Kevin White. Every few weeks, it seemed, Silber would say something outrageous as he rolled out his campaign, whether talking about rationing elderly health care with a Learlike reference to ripeness or corruption as a necessary lubricant for economic progress.
White pointed out that Silber was being himself, blunt and confrontational and vivid. But White also pointed out a political truth. Silber may have been one of America’s better known academics. But he was not a well known figure in Massachusetts once you ventured beyond Route 128. If he was going to win a tough Democratic primary against veterans like Frank Bellotti and Lt.Gov. Evelyn Murphy and Bill Galvin, something had to be done about those recognition ratings. The shockers did the trick. Almost overnight, Silber became a household name.
He won the primary and would have won the general election.
All he had to do was to restrain himself until the vote.
As I saw it, White was like the trainer of a horse with derby potential. On the day of the big race, the star thoroughbred sweeps down the stretch toward the finish line and certain victory. Except, the horse never gets there. Some kind of existential crisis intervenes; the horse suddenly wanders off course and heads in a direction utterly unforeseen by his trainer or anyone else.
White acknowledged that all John Silber had to do was heed professional advice and make no waves, just for a few days. But he had to be himself. No matter what.
I haven’t yet written that novel. Started it a few times. Life has a way of intervening.
Ken Hartnett is a writer, editor, and teacher living in New Bedford.