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June 2, 2009

The Bald Truth, From Michael Smerconish

A rising star and one of America's more unique political commentators, Michael Smerconish has published a sprawling and multi-faceted new book, Morning Drive: Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started Talking. The book is highly entertaining and is valuable for multiple reasons, even though it's kind of all over the place.

The author is seemingly everywhere on the radio in the morning in Philadelphia, as well as Washington and several other cities, doing a separate show in the afternoon in several other markets, writing columns for both Philadelphia daily newspapers and frequently appearing on all three cable news networks at least until he recently signed an exclusive deal to contribute to MSNBC. He also recently appeared nude yes, nude as part of a Philadelphia Magazine profile.

A lifelong Philadelphian, former lawyer and mid-level HUD functionary in the Bush 41 administration, Smerconish is a rare breed among "conservative" talk show hosts. Despite appearing on a station where the other hosts are Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck, his show is less about right-wing purity or vituperation than it is about intelligent, and often very funny talk that doesn't insult the intelligence of its audience. He's also decent enough to avoid bad faith: Unlike his station-mates, Smerconish did not spend the past week arguing that Sonia Sotomayor hates white people most likely, because he's smart enough to realize that's not true.

Smerconish's book is really four separate books a straight autobiography, a collection of stories and anecdotes about his adventures appearing on various TV and radio shows, the author's "Suburban Manifesto" of his views on the issues and most intriguingly the story of how the lifelong Republican Smerconish came to pull the lever for Barack Obama in 2008. Smerconish speaks and writes often about being a voice of those like him and much of his audience upper-middle-class, professional, white, male and suburban and the book illustrates how he, much like wide swathes of that demographic in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, went from reliably Republican to a solid Obama block in 2008.

Smerconish is essentially a libertarian on social issues who rejects the influence of the religious right on the GOP, but on such issues as torture, racial profiling and hatred of political correctness in all its forms, he's slightly to the right of Dick Cheney. Smerconish's previous three books were Flying Blind, a jeremiad in favor of racial profiling in security; Muzzled, an anti-political correctness screed; and Murdered by Mumia, co-written with the widow of Daniel Faulkner, the police officer killed in 1981 by Mumia Abu-Jamal.

The strongest part of Morning Drive is the inside look Smerconish gives us of the super-ridiculous world of cable news talk shows. He rightly decries the silly way the networks break everything down into reductive right/left categories, and even better, lets us in on how exactly guests are picked. Smerconish recalls an e-mail from a Fox News booker telling him they need someone to argue the affirmative in a segment asking "Is Obama too cocky?" The author, to his credit, refused to argue a position with which he doesn't agree.

The autobiographical stuff is well done, and the author shares some great stories of his life in politics. The book's weakest element, though, is the Suburban Manifesto. Sure, the author deserves credit for pulling some views from Column A and others from Column B, but the "Manifesto" chapters largely disrupt the flow of the book, and probably would have worked better as their own chapter.

Most books written in recent years by talk radio or cable news personalities have been either partisan political screeds or 350-page exercises in self-aggrandizement. Michael Smerconish deserves credit for authoring an entertaining, witty look at a truly fascinating time in our media and politics, as well as for doing it his own way.


2009 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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