Smerconish’s personal migration to the Center was driven by a number of things.
“I was never in for the program driven largely by evangelical Christians, who have controlled the GOP platform on the social issues,” he says. “I think like many others I just sort of turned the other cheek and acted like those social planks didn’t exist in the platform, when in fact they do. And the party has gone much too far in that direction, in my view. So the party probably left me more than I left it.
“Notice I haven’t joined the Democratic ranks, either,” he adds quickly. “I’m registered as an Independent because I don’t want to be associated with the thought processes of either one.”
Until the 2008 election, Smerconish had consistently supported Republican presidential candidates. But he found himself becoming disenchanted with the Bush administration’s approach to the War on Terror.
“I was initially very caught up in the bravado of ‘We need to fight them over there so that we don’t have to fight them here,’” he says. “And then I grew increasingly skeptical of that approach—and in particular whether we were keeping our eye on the ball with regard to the hunt for bin Laden.
“You know, I make a lot of mistakes, and I’ve called a lot of things wrong, but the one area where I’m like a soothsayer is that I always thought that Pakistan was where we needed to be. I thought we were getting rolled by the Pakistanis and the ISI—and that if we really wanted to go get bin Laden, that needed to be our focus.”
When then-Senator Barack Obama came onto his program in the spring of 2008, they discussed the hunt for bin Laden, and Pakistan in particular. “He believed that we needed to be aggressive with regard to Pakistan on this issue,” Smerconish recalls. “People who are strong on defense don’t normally get drawn to the Democratic side of the aisle, but that’s what happened to me. I thought that the Republicans, for all the tough talk, weren’t being smart about this. So it was foreign policy, and terror in particular, that made me cast that ballot.”
Not surprisingly, he announced his change of allegiance on the air.
“I shared it with my audience, not in a scolding way of, ‘This is what I’m doing and this is what you need to do,’ but one of, ‘This is how I got here, and this is what I’m going to do, and I feel like I should let you in the booth with me.’ Yeah, that was a significant moment for me, and I think a significant moment for a lot of listeners, many of whom will never forgive me for having made that move. But I sleep well in the whole way in which this thing has evolved.”
The reaction to his political evolution/change of heart/apostasy was, well, fast and furious, and it hasn’t calmed down much. Just check out his Facebook page.
“It’s amazing to watch the 180 turn you have made from proud Ronald Reagan and both George Bushes supporter to cheerleader, lackey, and apologist for the Obama administration,” wrote one perpetual critic a few months ago. “I guess that money was good enough to sell your soul and shred whatever remaining integrity you once had. SAD.”
Smerconish shrugs. “Doing what I do, I’ve heard it all,” he says. “It goes with the territory that you’ve got to put up with a lot of bullshit. None of it bothers me. The only thing that bothers me is when someone says, ‘Well, you voted for Obama for career gain,’ or ‘You’ve called out what you perceive as hypocrisy for career gain.’ That’s the one that gets me—because nothing is a clearer, surer path to success in the business I’m in than to hammer this president whether he deserves it or not, and to spout only conservative talking points. It’s like paint-by-numbers. My god, how easy it would be for me just to come on the air like the others and kick the shit out of this guy hours on end. It’s not how I see the world, and it’s not how I choose to spend my professional time.”
In August 2009, Obama did his first live radio interview as president. His interviewer was Smerconish, who was slightly flummoxed when the president arrived five minutes early.
“We have this expression in the business about ‘not leaving it in the locker room,’” he explains. “I don’t want to be unfriendly, but if you do speak to someone [off the air] and they tell you something, they forget that they told you off the air. So how can I now make stupid talk with the president? I’m thinking, ‘Jesus, I don’t want to ask him about Cash for Clunkers or healthcare. I’m almost sorry he’s here early, but not really.”
So he pulled out a question from his sons, who wanted him to ask about a certain book in the film National Treasure 2.
“I said, ‘Mr. President, what’s in the ‘Book of Secrets’?” And without missing a beat, he said to me, ‘I would tell you, but I’d have to kill you.’”
Smerconish has interviewed Obama seven times now, as well as every other living president. The effect of that on his audience is hard to gauge, though.
“People do not come up to me and say, ‘Oh, I heard your interview with Obama—when you asked him about the hunt for bin Laden, that was really good,’” he says. “They will ask me about things like the color of their Christmas lights. They’ll ask me about poker. They’ll ask me about the declining rates of circumcision.”
Which is why, on this late-April morning, which happens to be Day Two of the NFL Draft, he’s trying to maintain a dialogue with a high-school football coach from Pittsburgh. “You’re caught up in the hyberbole,” the coach tells him. Smerconish, who thinks that parental worries about football-related brain injuries may someday doom the sport, is diplomatic at first, but when he brings up the research by Sports Legacy Institute founder Chris Nowinski, the coach dismisses it. The head injuries are no worse than they are among soccer players, the guy says, and soon he’s not listening anymore, just getting louder and more dismissive, until finally, after a warning—“Coach, I’m gonna finish my thought, whether you’d like me to or not, ’cause that’s how we roll here”—Smerconish thanks him for his call and cuts off his sound. Then he addresses his audience.
“Listen, the way we play, for those of you who don’t know—you don’t have to talk over me,” he says. “You don’t have to rush your words. I like hearing what you have to say. As a matter of fact, the reason the coach was taken in the order in which he was, is because he disagrees with me. So I’m not looking to quell dissent. But it’s a two-way street.”