Judging from the copious quantity of confused commentary, the rise of Donald Trump has proved profoundly perplexing to the political world’s posse of presidential pundits. It might not be if they’d lived through the 1990 Massachusetts gubernatorial campaign — and the shooting star trajectory of John Silber’s polarizing campaign.
With the state economy in recession and voters angry and frustrated, the socially conservative Silber, then the president of Boston University, jumped late into a Democratic primary field that included well-known Democrats Frank Bellotti and Evelyn Murphy. At first, the irascible academic seemed like a long shot, but his controversial comments quickly came to dominate the dialogue.
“Why has Massachusetts suddenly become so popular for people who are accustomed to living in the tropical climate?” he asked shortly after entering the race. “There has got to be a welfare magnet going on here.”
The Boston Herald quickly labeled his politically electric comments “Silber Shockers,” but despite the criticism that ensued, the combative candidate declared there would be more to come.
And there were. He had contemplated converting to Judaism before discovering that “the racism of Jews is quite phenomenal.” Teenage girls were having babies so they could drop out of school and get on welfare, he asserted. To preserve Medicaid for younger recipients, the state should curtail spending on expensive procedures for the elderly, he said, declaring that “when you’ve had a long life and you’re ripe, then it’s time to go.” An abortion-rights measure Murphy supported meant that a woman could “have her baby in the ninth month and kill that baby.”
His rivals regularly denounced his remarks. Offended constituencies howled. Experts noted that Silber was, at very least, vastly oversimplifying complex issues. Silber, who seemed to revel in rancorous rhubarbs, particularly with reporters, stayed his controversial course.
Asked in the final primary season debate how often he had campaigned in Boston’s Area B, which includes Roxbury, Mattapan, and Dorchester, Silber answered: “There is no point on my making a speech on crime control to a bunch of drug addicts.”
Some pundits began writing his political epitaph, but voters who were angry or resentful, or who saw in Silber someone speaking uncomfortable truths to a politically correct party and media establishment, coalesced around him. Less than a week later, he upset Bellotti to win the Democratic nomination.
And then, in the general election campaign against amiable Republican Bill Weld, the style that had worked so well wore thin. In an at-home-with-the-candidates interview, Silber, ahead in the polls, bristled when Channel 5 newswoman Natalie Jacobson asked him to list his strengths and weaknesses, a far milder question than the tough but fair query Fox’s Megyn Kelly put to Trump. He also declared that a generation of children had been neglected by career women who thought that “a third-rate day-care center was just as good as a first-rate home.”
Over the next few days, voters blanched as they contemplated four years of Silber.
And on election day, the acerbic educator snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
Robert Donahue, who ran Silber’s campaign, says there’s a lesson for Trump from that distant race: “You live by the sword, you die by the sword.” Or, to translate that into Silber-esque terms, he who is propelled by the shocker is easily felled by the shocker.
The bombastic Trump is leading now, but look for him to be overtaken once the GOP’s Big Bang field of hopefuls is winnowed to half a handful of serious candidates. An asset in the early going, his bombast and braggadocio are tantamount to a ticking bomb, with the prospect of voter recoil never more than one explosive comment away.