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Daughter of John Silber releases book on growing up with the controversial public figure

Rachel Silber Devlin

The name John Silber might sound familiar to you. He helped transform Boston University from a commuter school to a leading university as its President and Chancellor from 1971-2003. He was also a controversial candidate for governor of Massachusetts and championed freedom of speech, particularly on college campuses. In Snapshots of My Father, John Silber, his daughter Rachel Silber Devlin provides a candid biography that takes the reader through moments that show her father’s temperament, intellect, and the challenges of his later years out of the spotlight.

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About author Rachel Silber Devlin

Author of Snapshots of My Father, John SilberRachel Silber Devlin is one of John Silber’s seven children. As a wife, mother, teacher, and writer, she has always had a strong sense of who she was apart from any labels.

Devlin says that she sometimes feels like she and her dad grew up together because she knew him so well from a time when he was young and still learning how to make his way in the world. She divides her time between her homes in Texas and Massachusetts, the states where her children and grandchildren live.

Book excerpt from Snapshots of My Father, John Silber

This excerpt is from Rachel Silber Devlin’s new book, Snapshots of My Father, John Silber. Reprinted with permission from Peter E. Randall Publisher.

Ch. 19 The Campaign for Governor

For our family, the convention in Springfield involved mostly hanging out in hotel rooms, a constant hubbub with friends and supporters dropping by, and anxious members of the campaign team keeping tallies, calculating and re-calculating possible results.

The next week, after winning the nomination, JRS invited Frank Bellotti to the Carlton Street house for breakfast.  Bellotti accepted the invitation, but when he arrived, proud and dignified, he said he was getting over a stomach bug and couldn’t eat anything.  He would not even accept a cup of tea.  I rather admired this symbolic act of refusing to break bread with JRS after he had run that negative ad, but for Pop, as the party’s nominee, this didn’t bode well for how helpful Bellotti and his people would be in the election.

There has been a great deal written about how temperament was Pop’s Achilles’ heel.  Steve Kornacki, a journalist from Massachusetts who earned his degree in political science from Boston University has become well-known for his enthusiastic gesticulating when he works with interactive election maps on national television.  Not long ago, Kornacki reminisced about John Silber and the temperament issue that was covered during the 1990 campaign by Natalie Jacobson.  While Jacobson’s interview appeared to have been done just days before the election, when Pop was up in the polls and predicted to win, Kornacki like many other people, did not know that the interview was taped more than a month before the election.

It was curious how it came about.  A month before the election, when Pop was down in the polls, Natalie, along with her daughter, took Natalie’s dog to be seen by my sister, Alexandra, who is a vet.  Remarkably, Jacobson had never seen Alexandra before that appointment, nor from what I have been told, at any time since.  During the appointment, Jacobson offered Pop what was termed a casual getting-to-know-the family interview for an upcoming Sunday show.  We accepted what we thought was going to be a light-hearted interview.  Perhaps we were naïve political rookies because the interview did not go as we hoped and expected.

On the long drive into town, my husband, Jim, asked if we had any topics that we were prepared to talk about.  I hadn’t even thought about being prepared.  My parents had said Natalie wanted to film a casual family meal, nothing more.  Jim persisted, asking if it wouldn’t be good to at least have some ground rules, or some idea of where we might like the conversation to go.

I planned to pull my parents aside and ask them about this when we arrived, but that turned out to be impossible.  The television crew had already wired both JRS and my mother for sound before we got there, and even worse, my dad looked haggard.  He had just gotten over a flu and his skin color didn’t look healthy.  On top of that, Skinner Donahue wasn’t there to help guide the proceedings.  Another less experienced and less forceful manager, Michal Regunberg, was present.

What followed was more than an hour, maybe two, of interrogation, moving from room to room, that involved continual pressing questioning by Natalie.  I don’t recall any light conversation about sports or hobbies.  I remember when she was asking for our view on women taking on traditionally masculine jobs, I explained that I believed standards should not be altered to make that happen.  I said that if a female firefighter needed to climb a ladder to rescue me, I hoped that she would be a big, strong woman.  But I didn’t notice any warmth or understanding in Natalie’s eyes as I spoke, and I wondered why the conversation was going in this direction at what was supposed to be a casual dinner.

We felt as a family that she crossed a line when she asked James how he felt when the people at school said terrible things about his grandfather.  It must have been pretty overwhelming for a second-grader to have a beautiful lady offering sympathy if only he would unburden himself to her, but he just said, “I mostly hear good things.”  I think that the rest of us at the table were adversely affected as we felt she was pushing at us non-stop with her questions.  We were all becoming thoroughly annoyed with Natalie, and the disgust Pop felt was clearly evident on his face and in his whole demeanor.  Rather than play for the cameras as a seasoned politician should do, he made a few choice comments that bristled with contempt.

It is a well-known method of news media to conduct a long interview and only use a carefully edited portion that makes the point they are after.  But what happened in the election of 1990 seemed extraordinarily calculating.  One negative morsel aired soon after the interview took place, and it took a while for the ruckus from that to die down.  Then, a month later, when Pop was leading in the polls shortly before the election, the carefully pruned segment saved for just that purpose hit the airwaves:  A bombshell just before the vote.  And, of course, the effect was magnified because Weld and his PR guy, Dick Morris, played the worst part of it repeatedly on TV up to the election.

Perhaps we should have suspected the damage was done when Natalie was packing up to leave with her hours of tape in the can.  My impression was that she seemed gleeful, almost giddy, as she looped her arm through mine while she was saying her good-byes, and almost danced us across the living room toward the front hall.

And then she started gushing about “The Welds” and how she would soon be interviewing them.  I found the way she said “The Welds” in a hushed, reverent tone to be very telling.  I thought it spoke of her awe at their wealth and social position, and I think we should have known then to expect the worst.  JRS has said since that if he had it to do again he would not have let Natalie into the house for more than fifteen minutes.  You learn so much during a campaign, but the learning curve can be steep and costly.

Natalie’s interview with the Weld family had the casual feel that she had told us to expect for ours.  Though it was filmed later, it appeared ahead of ours.  In it, Natalie appeared to drop in at the Weld house just as Bill Weld was in the middle of cooking up a family breakfast for his kids.  Obviously she could not have shown up then because she and her team would have had to arrive before that to wire Weld for sound.  We felt as a family that Natalie clearly did her best to present him in a golden light.

Looking back on that 1990 campaign, Pop realized that his temper had probably lost him the election which was so close.  But I believe that if anyone were to watch the whole Natalie Jacobson/Silber interview tape, un-cut and un-edited, they would at least find John Silber’s reactions more understandable, and therefore less damaging.

Snapshots of My Father, John Silber by Rachel Silber Devlin

About the book Snapshots of My Father

Snapshots of My Father, John Silber is a candid and extensively illustrated biography of John Silber, who entirely transformed Boston University as its president and was a controversial, yet intellectually formidable, candidate for governor of Massachusetts. In this book, Rachel Silber Devlin looks at her family and her father’s trajectory from Texas to Boston and what life became like there; she examines his personality and temperament; and she describes his later years, the hardships he weathered and his continued accomplishments out of the public eye.

Devlin chose to tell her father’s story because John Silber is so controversial and widely misunderstood. People who knew him either loved him or hated him. Each chapter is like a snapshot taken from a daughter’s perspective, peering into the past she saw.

Silber championed freedom of speech, believing all sides should be heard, especially on college campuses. He was also the father of seven children. Snapshots of My Father is a clear-eyed vision of this authentic man of principle who had a drive to achieve great things.

The book includes more than 200 images from Boston University and family archives.

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