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June 11, 2014 12:35 PM Michael Smerconish: Blast From Past or Wave of Future?

By Ed Kilgore

As regular readers know, I pretty much eschew political gabfests in either their television or radio formats. Entire generations of media “personalities” come and go without my noticing them.

So I approached Simon van Zuylen-Wood’s piece in the new issue of the Washington Monthly on longtime TV/radio talker Michael Smerconish with the innocence of a newborn babe. I’ve never, to my knowledge, heard or seen the man, unless it involved a brief sound or image before a dial or remote extinguished him from my consciousness.

Biographical insights aside, van Zuylen-Wood approaches Smerconish, a former conservative political operative and media personality who’s now perceived as a “centrist” similar to but a bit more substantive than Joe Scarborough, from twin perspectives: as an anomaly in the formulaic and highly predictable world of political talk, and as “the last interesting centrist,” someone who seems actually independent in his thinking, to the point where he can change his mind (and that of others) in a single show:

Of course, there are plenty of other centrists and independents in public life. Nearly all of them, however, are bland and mind-numbingly tedious. Among them: the business-friendly Third Way zombies who pine for Supreme Leader Bloomberg; the Fox News Democrats-in-Name-Only who crow on endlessly about the national debt; the ex-politicians who grow misty-eyed recalling the halcyon days when everybody was “reaching across the aisle.”
Smerconish is more interesting than these folks thanks largely to his style of banter, which might be described as suburban populist. He is civil and substantive, like a public radio host, but with an amped-up energy level you’re not going to hear from, say, Tom Ashbrook or Diane Rehm. Where National Public Radio tends toward the high-minded, the Michael Smerconish Program is more water cooler—a segment on, say, the situation in the Ukraine might be followed by a discussion about a kid who peed in a public reservoir, or a student at Duke who claims to be a porn star. Smerconish shares his opinions as shamelessly as Bill O’Reilly or Ed Schultz. Yet his views are ideologically unpredictable—sometimes he cuts left, sometimes right—and he puts them forth provisionally, as jumping-off points for discussion, inviting his guests and listeners to challenge him.
Smerconish thinks, in other words, the way most people—at least most people who aren’t hard-core political partisans—actually think about complex issues.

Yeah, that does sound interesting, at least from a sociological point of view. But is there some sort of political constituency for this kind of “centrism,” as van Zuylen-Wood suggests? I dunno. While I don’t listen to talk radio, I do occasionally (and probably hypocritically) appear on radio shows, usually of the high-minded public radio variety. One of them, KCRW’s Left, Right and Center was for years regularly moderated by Matt Miller, a very intelligent self-styled “centrist” who was as skilled as Smerconish seems to be at teasing out hidden common ground and identifying trans-ideological “third way” perspectives. Matt just ran for Congress in L.A. in Henry Waxman’s district. He was endorsed by the L.A. Times as someone who might break the mold and provide fresh perspectives in Washington. And he was running in a crowded field in a Top Two primary designed to make candidacies like his feasible. He finished fifth.

Political saliency aside, there’s the parallel question of whether “interesting centrists” have a future in political media. Here, too, van Zuylen-Wood seems unsure whether Smerconish is a throwback or a pioneer, as illustrated by this vignette near the end of the piece:

On that day in early March when the Malaysian jetliner story first breaks, I tag along with Smerconish on a trip to the New York home office of Simon & Schuster, which has been tapped by Smerconish’s publisher to distribute his sixth book, Talk, a roman à clef about a Rush Limbaugh type who fakes his rabid conservatism to dominate ratings, before (spoiler alert?) denouncing the right-wing radio industrial complex in an on-air cri de coeur. The idea is for Smerconish to get the sales team amped up about the novel before they try to sell it to Books-A-Million and others. So, champagne is uncorked, introductions are made, and Smerconish launches into an Aaron Sorkin-worthy monologue about the plague of partisan media.
“Saturday mornings in the 1970s, my brother and I, you could find us in our rec room,” he begins. “We’d be watching pro wrestling. This is pretty much a guy thing, I know, but we would be watching our heroes—like George ‘the Animal’ Steel, and Haystacks Calhoun, and the Living Legend Bruno Sammartino, and my favorite—Chief Jay Strongbow.” He pauses. “Look at me now. Because today I work in the media equivalent of the pro wrestling that I used to watch as a kid. That’s what the world of cable television news and talk radio has become.” And finally, the climax: “You know, there’s a good guy and a bad guy, all the fights are predetermined and they’re choreographed. And I’m afraid that too many Americans—and definitely the politicians—can’t distinguish news from entertainment.”
I’ve heard this all before—he opened his CNN show and closed his novel with the same speech. But I still find something quaint about the scene: a team of old-school book salesmen, looking ever the rumpled part, preparing to hawk a title to a handful of bricks-and-mortar chain bookstores teetering on the edge of insolvency; in front of them, a quixotic pundit railing against his industry’s meal ticket. In the book version of this tirade, Smerconish’s lead character shifts an entire media paradigm in the heat of a presidential election. In this version, twenty people clap, ask a few follow-up questions, and then bid him good-bye.

A blast from the past or the wave of the future? Read van Zuylen-Wood’s piece, and reach your own conclusions.

I’d be interested in hearing from those familiar with Smerconish’s media work in the comments thread.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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