I recall very well the first time I was on the Michael Smerconish radio talk show on WPHT in Philadelphia. He was doing a nationally syndicated talk show carried by 70 stations across the U.S. He was also a well-read and respected columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
It was in mid-April 2008, during the run-up to the April 22 Pennsylvania presidential primary. I was campaigning for my law school friend, then-New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, and I was asked to do his talk radio show.
I had heard that Smerconish was a life-long Republican with a conservative tilt, so I expected him to be tough on Clinton and my fellow Democrats. But by the time my interview about Clinton’s presidential campaign was completed, I had decided that this guy was impossible to pigeonhole ideologically and impossible not to like.
By the end of the interview, I couldn’t figure out whether he supported Clinton for president or not, but I knew he respected her and liked her. And that was good enough for me.
I made a mental note as I left his studio to follow his career. I wondered whether someone so hard to label could survive in talk radio, which was famous for favoring with ratings the most strident voices and styles on the right and left.
Now, five years later, the answer is clear: Smerconish has been on a steady rise and broadening his career path in multiple venues — radio, TV and print. And he has done so, in my view, by following what I see as a “purple” formula: applying intellectually consistent standards equally to the left and right, questioning the orthodoxy of both and, most importantly, avoiding impugning motives or attacking others personally.
On the issues, Smerconish is predictably unpredictable. He is a Roman Catholic who has spoken out against the moral failures of the church to address the scandal of pedophilia and cover-up. He opposed the military intervention in Iraq but favors waterboarding known terrorists under extreme circumstances. He believes in legalizing marijuana and prostitution. He favors tax increases for the wealthy, supported by liberals and opposed by conservatives, and entitlement reform, particularly in Social Security and Medicare, opposed by liberals and supported by conservatives.
Over the last several years he has been an effective and frequent guest on liberal-leaning MSNBC evening cable shows, maintaining his independent voice and perspective in his questions and commentaries. Despite his Republican background, he supported then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama in 2008, and again in 2012, and broke with most fellow Republicans by supporting former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman in the GOP primaries, traveling to New Hampshire to conduct one of the best interviews of Huntsman in the entire campaign.
He has interviewed President Obama on seven occasions, twice in the White House. He has also interviewed Presidents Carter, Bush 41 and Bush 43, and Vice Presidents Gore and Biden.
Just recently, he moved to SiriusXM satellite radio, where he can now be heard every day during prime time across the nation and on SiriusXM’s mobile and digital outlets as host of the ultimate “purple” show on radio. “The Michael Smerconish Program” airs on POTUS, a nonpartisan political channel that stands for “Politics of the United States,” after first being established in 2008 to cover the presidential campaign. Smerconish’s show and POTUS on SiriusXM are must-listen radio for anyone who likes facts, objective and balanced analysis and political debate that informs rather than relies on food fights.
In short, it’s the perfect platform for Smerconish.
His success at POTUS — and his ability to build a broad national following on satellite radio — will be a test of whether his purple brand of decent, vigorous debate can build ratings and a national following.
I hope he can be successful doing that, because his success could send a signal to others in broadcasting and on the Internet, especially those who practice anonymous vitriol and hate on Twitter and the blogosphere, that decency and respectful debate is the way to go — that you can do good and well at the same time. If that happens, maybe it will send the same message to politicians in Washington, and just maybe, if that happens, we can see some progress ending partisan bile and stalemate and bring back a government that works again — and works together again.
Lanny Davis, a Washington attorney and principal in the firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, specializing in legal crisis management and dispute resolution, served as former President Clinton’s special counsel from 1996-98 and as a member of former President Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board from 2006-07. He currently serves as special counsel to Dilworth Paxson, and is the author of Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Coping With Crises in Business, Politics, and Life, recently published by Threshold/ Simon & Schuster. He can be followed on Twitter @LannyDavis.