A Q&A with author and political pundit Michael Smerconish

This week in North Philly Notes, Michael Smerconish talks about how he came to politics, his opinions, and his new book,  Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right

How did you develop your role as a political commentator?
I was interested in Republican politics and benefitted from some unique experiences at an early age. I was an assistant GOP committeeman, elected alternate delegate to a national convention and state legislative candidate all before age 25. By the time I was 29, I was appointed to a sub-cabinet level position in the George H.W. Bush Administration. Those experiences put me on the radar of some Philadelphia local network television affiliates who then began to call upon me for election commentary.

How did your background in politics shape your opinions, and how did it influence your approach to writing about local and popular culture?
I’ve always enjoyed writing about both political and cultural topics. As I look at the breath of my work as a columnist, it is pretty evenly divided between the two. I’ve written about a variety of 9/11 related issues, war, political candidates, and the economy. I’ve also written about yard sales, holiday decorations, and family pets.

You are always looking for a “good story” to turn into a column. In this age of “click bait” journalism, what makes a “good story,” or motivates you to think critically and provide thoughtful analysis?
A good story to me has nothing to do with the Red State/Blue State divide. What I most enjoy are telling those stories that are Seinfeldian, a slice of life that may (or may not) highlight areas of different opinion but not along the partisan divide. The kind of issues we enjoy talking about and maybe laughing about without being at each other’s throats.

Clowns to the Left of Me_smCan you describe the criteria you used to whittle down the more than 1000 articles you published to the 100 in the book?
Like Justice Potter Stewart once said about pornography, “I knew it when I saw it.” By my count, I published 1,047 columns for the Daily News and Inquirer between 2001 and 2016, and although I was making some swaps until the final submission, for the most part I had an easy time picking what I wanted to re-visit. Some things I got right and wanted to crow about, some things I got wrong but wanted to own, and others just plain stood the test of time and were insightful.

What observations do you have about the Afterwords you wrote for each entry? In some cases, you apologize for things you wrote, and in others, you show how your thinking on a topic has evolved.
I think most of us evolve over time with regard to our thinking. What separates me from many is that my opinions are all chiseled in granite, er, newsprint. And so you can easily discern how I viewed literally more than 1,000 issues. As I re-read everything I have published, there were certainly areas where my views have changed and I wanted to explain why. But there were plenty of times when I looked at what I’ve written and concluded that the times have changed, not me.

You write about everyone from Fidel Castro to Bill Cosby. You write about paying more money for a Cat Stevens concert than you care to admit. Who impressed you the most—or the least?
While I have been immensely fortunate to interact with many household names, those aren’t often the encounters that created the most meaningful columns. Yes, I interviewed Barack Obama and wrote about him, and Bill Cosby, and had a funny encounter with Led Zeppelin and Pete Rose—but the columns I’m most proud of are those I wrote about an old college professor, a woman who worked for our family in a domestic capacity, and a guy I went to junior high school with who today is a tomato farmer. Real people with compelling stories.

Do you have a favorite column that you published?
I once wrote a Daily News column—with my thumbs on a Blackberry—while standing in a 2-hour viewing line as it snaked through South Philadelphia. I think the headline was “Requiem for an Era.” I’m very proud of that column.

You are donating your author proceeds for the book to the Children’s Crisis Treatment Center. Can you explain why this charity is so important to you?
CCTC exists to serve children who are victims of trauma. If you hear a heartbreaking story about something that has happened to children, chances are, CCTC is involved. My wife is on the board and I wanted to highlight their good work.

About the author:
Michael A. Smerconish
is a SiriusXM radio host, CNN television host, and Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper columnist. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Lehigh University and the University of Pennsylvania Law School, he is of counsel to the law firm of Kline & Specter. He resides in the Philadelphia suburbs, where he and his wife have raised four children.

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