“I grew up in a house that had big, fat, gaudy, colored Christmas lights,” Smerconish is saying. “At some point, when my house became a little bit larger than the house in which I was raised, and I drove a car that was a little bit nicer than the car my parents used to drive—we decided we are now white-light people.”
By “we,” he presumably meant his wife, Lavinia, with whom he has four children. This evolution, and his riff about his resistance to it, touched a nerve among his listeners.
“I remember coming back from a commercial break and saying, ‘Well, it’s my wife’s birthday—December 7—and in our house this is the day we get the Christmas tree,’” he recalls. “‘And if history repeats, we’re going to go home, and then she’s going to bathe it in white lights. But frankly, I’m really not a white-light person; I’m a colored-light person.’
“It turned into a sort of Howard Beale Network moment where I then said on the air, ‘You know, I’m mad as hell about this, and I want to get rid of these white lights!’” he adds. “So of course I went home, we got the tree, and we put up the white lights. She won that argument. But the phone lines melted down with people who wanted to offer social commentary about what the color of your lights said about you.”
It was the kind of radio moment he strives for, connecting the trivial and the profound. But it was also a populist statement, affirming that he wouldn’t let his personal prosperity co-opt his taste. And Smerconish is unabashed about his colored-light enthusiasms. (He’s a classic-rock aficionado who loves to get members of bands like Yes on his show, for example, though he’s not so much of a fan-boy that he won’t call out obnoxious behavior, as he did last year after attending a Led Zeppelin press conference notable for Robert Plant’s withering disdain.)
Smerconish grew up in a solidly Republican household in Doylestown, the governmental seat of Bucks County. He describes himself as a “cafeteria Catholic,” and says that, like many others, he followed his parents’ political inclinations. As a sixth-grader he wrote fan letters to Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo, and by the time he was 16 he was invited to a five-hour breakfast at Rizzo’s Chestnut Hill home.
“I liked his values,” Smerconish told The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Tom Fox in 1988. “They were the values I was taught at home. He’s an ethnic and so am I.” He describes his father’s ethnic heritage as “Austro-Hungarian Empire and Italian,” and his mother’s as Montenegrin.
At one point I ask him whether a lifetime in the Philadelphia suburbs may have had an impact on his worldview.
“I think we’re all a product of our environment to a large extent,” he says. “I mean, if I had been born in Pakistan I’d be a Muslim right now. So I’m sure geography does have something to do with it.”
And, he adds, the Philly ’burbs are a remarkably accurate political barometer for the country:
“People would say to me before the election, ‘Who’s going to win?’ And I would say, ‘Tell me what happens in the Philadelphia suburbs, and I can tell you who’s going to win this general election.’ My mindset is like that of a lot of people around here, regardless of how they’re registered, in that they tend to be fairly liberal on social issues, conservative on fiscal and military issues, and there are a whole host of issues they don’t have figured out.”
During his senior year at Central Bucks High School West, he met then-presidential candidates George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. “I wanted to vote for both of them,” he says, and was “elated when they joined forces and became a ticket that summer.” That fall he entered Lehigh University, where a liberal-turned-conservative urban-studies professor named David Amidon sparked an intellectual awakening in him. Smerconish, who went on to graduate Phi Beta Kappa, also developed an “obsession, not just to go to law school but to go to Penn’s law school,” he recalls. “It was a sole focus of my junior and senior year.”
In 1986, during his second year at Penn Law, Smerconish ran for state legislator in his native Bucks County. He lost the race by 419 votes, partly because he supported the controversial nuclear-plant pumping station along the Delaware River, whose opponents included one Abbie Hoffman. In his 2009 book Morning Drive, he recalled telling supporters that he was “proud of our effort to bring conservative government to Bucks County.” But, he added, he would no longer describe himself as “conservative.”
He cops to some regrets about his time at Penn Law. “I worked so hard to get in there, and then my mind wandered by the end of my second year,” he says. “I was in such a damn hurry to get out and start doing things that I didn’t take full advantage of what was going on around me. I wish I had appreciated that I’m surrounded by all this intellect.” (One of his professors, Gary Francione, now at Rutgers and an expert on animal-rights theory and law, has been on Smerconish’s show several times.) “If I had to do it all over again, I would have handled my third year of law school differently,” he adds. “Because then I started to consult on campaigns.”
That included running the successful senatorial campaign of Arlen Specter C’48 for southeastern Pennsylvania, and advising Rizzo’s unsuccessful mayoral campaign in 1987. He was also appointed housing coordinator for the Department of Housing and Urban Development by President George H.W. Bush.
“It was, frankly, having those great political experiences at an early age that caused me to be invited to offer commentary on radio and television,” he says. “And I think initially the ego of it consumed me.”
He began doing talk radio in the early 1990s, first at WWDB and then WPHT, known as The Big Talker for its lineup of high-powered, mostly conservative talk-show hosts. In those days he more or less fit right in. His book Murdered by Mumia gave him street cred among cops and the Rizzo Right, and he had a knack for organizing goofy stunts like the Ira Einhorn Killer Tomato Contest (which sought the tomato that “best exhibits the plump, seedy characteristics” of Einhorn C’61, then fighting extradition from France for the murder of girlfriend Holly Maddux). But although Smerconish “probably wasn’t the most socially tolerant person” in those days, as one old friend told Philadelphia magazine, his views were by no means rigid.
“I came of age in the early ’80s on Ronald Reagan’s watch,” he says. “And you can say, ‘Well, that was a very conservative time period.’ What people forget is that 60 percent of the Senate were moderates. And so many moderates existed in the Republican Party that there was a group called the Wednesday Lunch Club. They were the face of the Republican Party. Today, if you tried to put together the Senate moderates of the GOP, you’d be in a phone booth. They’ve all been drummed out by these ideological purity tests.”
Those, in turn, are driven by gerrymandered “safe” districts (in which compromise is seldom needed), the role of fundraising, and the closed-primary system, he says, pointing to some recent primary elections in which fringe Republican candidates like Christine O’Donnell in Delaware defeated better credentialed but more moderate candidates. “Why?” asks Smerconish (who supported former Governor Jon M. Huntsman Jr. C’87 Hon’10 in the Republican presidential primary). “Because only 16 percent came out in that primary. Who are they? They are ideologues. Where are they getting their information? Talk radio, Drudge, and Fox. That’s it.”