Silber, remembered

By STEPHEN MINDICH  |  October 4, 2012

Phoenix publisher Stephen Mindich,who received his BA and MA from Boston University and was later named "a Double Distinguished Alumnus," met BU President John Silber shortly after Silber arrived in Boston. Below is a sketch by Mindich of his relationship with Silber, who died last week at the age of 86.

"I disagree with nearly everything your father publishes about me in that newspaper of his, but none the less, I hold him in high regard because he has more integrity than any other publisher in Boston."

So, to my delight, spoke John Silber to my then high-school-senior son Brad at a 1986 cocktail party held as a prelude to an Israel Bond dinner at which I was to be the honoree. Silber, a big supporter of Israel, had directed that Boston University invest vigorously in Israeli bonds. As a surprise, he came to the party to congratulate me. After that meeting, Silber took a personal interest in Brad's college choices — none of which were BU. Silber invited Brad to spend an hour with him and convinced Brad that BU should be his college of choice. It was a decision that pleased each of us — for different reasons.

Over time, I got to know Silber through a number of not-always-agreeable encounters. And while I — and the Phoenix — were extremely critical of his many aggressively reactionary measures, especially toward student and faculty progressives, I developed a personal liking for the man and a deep respect for his demandingly high standards. Under Silber's leadership, BU became academically distinguished, financially stable, and promoted a philosophy of personal responsibility and achievement.

It was, ironically, that notion of personal responsibility that came into play between us just days before Silber officially announced his bid to become governor of Massachusetts.

Silber invited me to breakfast with him at his home. No political aides, it was just the two of us. I was there, Silber explained in his intensely direct way, because he wanted my support. I belived that I could easily dodge the request by telling him what it turned out (not surprisingly) he already knew — that I made no political contributions. Silber was quickly dismissive: "I don't want your money, Stephen; I want your support in the Phoenix."

With nowhere to go, I said to Silber, using the same bold, unflinching manner as he, "John, with all due respect, I don't think you would make a good governor." Seeing no other reaction than his eyes widening, I continued, "A governor must be a consensus builder, and despite all your brilliance, building consensus is not one of your strengths."

The meeting ended shortly. Silber thanked me for coming and asked that I keep an open mind. I said would. But as I left I wondered: if Silber were to win the primary against Attorney General Frank Bellotti — whom the Phoenix did endorse — would Silber's uncontrollable temper eventually get the better of him?

And so it came to pass. In an interview the week before the election, John Silber exploded at Natalie Jacobson, then Boston's most beloved and gentle anchorwoman, because she innocently asked him to cite his greatest strength and weakness.

Flying off the handle, Silber snapped, "You find a weakness. I don't have to go around telling you what's wrong with me."

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