IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

‘Morning Drive’: Radio host’s path to punditry

Radio talk show host and columnist Michael Smerconish shares some of the humorous and challenging dilemmas he faced when he first delved into politics. An excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

In his book “Morning Drive,” radio talk show host and pundit Michael Smerconish writes about how he fell in love with politics and shares his opinion on hot-button issues. While in college, Smerconish worked on behalf of George H.W. Bush. In this excerpt, he shares some of the humorous and challenging dilemmas he faced as he delved into politics. An excerpt.

The doorman at the casino welcomed me, opened the door, and directed me to the second floor, which did indeed house a small casino with maybe a half-dozen blackjack tables. I took a seat and started to play next to an Asian guy. I had a drink when a cocktail waitress offered some booze. Not bad. I caught a good shoe, meaning lots of face cards that increased my odds, and I was enjoying the entire experience. Here I was, a college student, a frat guy, traveling with the vice president’s staff in Europe and playing some blackjack while sipping a White Russian. A White Russian. That cracks me up now just to think about it. I think I had no knowledge of liquor beyond beer, hence my strange order.

Anyway, I was soon making conversation with the dealer, and after replaying in my mind the speedy way in which I was shown the staircase to the casino, I asked the dealer what was downstairs. “A champagne bar,” was his reply. That sounded pretty nice. Before too long I was up $200. Why not a glass of champagne to finish a nice evening, I thought? Wait until the frat guys hear I polished off some Cold Duck or whatever, to boot. I cashed in my chips and headed for the stairs. The same doorman now pulled back another curtain to reveal the “champagne bar.” Once inside, it took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the dark. When I could see, I saw that I was the lone male in a room of about twenty women. Their clothing, or lack of it, left no doubt as to their employment. Oh, the guys at Zeta Psi were never going to believe this! Wait a minute. Was prostitution even legal in Brussels? (Yes, was the answer.) Panic quickly set in. I saw my work with the vice president pass before my eyes, so I asked somebody if there was a rear exit. There was and I took it. The last thing I recall about that night is jogging down an alley behind the casino/whorehouse, feeling like I was in a James Bond movie and hoping I didn’t get lost heading back to my hotel.

For a time, I was simultaneously maintaining my responsibilities in college, doing advance work for Vice President Bush, and increasing my political involvement at home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. In our suburban community I was named the political equivalent of a city Ward Leader. Many a night I would drive one hour from campus to Bucks County to attend committeeperson meetings for the Republican Party, and then return to school. This involvement led to my being elected county-wide as an alternate delegate to the 1984 Republican National Convention. That summer’s convention was held in Dallas, and I was one of the youngest elected representatives at the national gathering.

After Lehigh, it was off to the University of Pennsylvania for law school, where my political involvement only increased. In my first year, I attended class and was a serious student. But in my second year of law school at Penn, I got diverted. The very seat that Dad had sought in the state legislature became open, and I decided to run for it myself, hoping to avenge my father’s loss. Despite my opening a full-time campaign office, raising more than $50,000, and running a pretty polished campaign, I lost by 419 votes. Though the campaign was unsuccessful, I’m still proud of my run for state legislature at the age of twenty-four.

When my own race ended, there was no way I could focus on just law school, so in my third and final year I played a significant role in two campaigns: Arlen Specter’s reelection to the U.S. Senate and the mayoral campaign of Frank L. Rizzo. In the fall of my third year at Penn Law, Senator Specter asked me to manage the city of Philadelphia portion of his campaign, and I said yes. His son Shanin and I were now close friends, and Shanin had been supportive of my run for the legislature. He told his father I had run a well-organized effort and that led his dad, Senator Specter, to invite me to join his campaign.

That 1986 Specter race is worthy of some mention. This was Arlen Specter’s first reelection campaign for the U.S. Senate and he was running against congressman Bob Edgar. Having lost his fair share of elections, Specter was determined to run hard. He had done a fine job raising money during his first term and was far better focused and financed than his opponent. That money enabled Specter to supplement the activities of the Republican Party where it had no presence — the minority wards of the city of Philadelphia. That’s where I came in. Gordon R. Woodrow Jr. was then Specter’s chief political strategist (and a great one), and “Whiskers,” as Specter called Gordon because of his beard, had asked me to try to build a street organization for Specter. We did, and were successful. At the top of the ticket that year was a hotly contested race for governor: Democrat Robert P. Casey (the now deceased father of the current U.S. senator of the same name) vs. Republican William Scranton III. On election day, Specter beat Bob Edgar but Bob Casey beat William Scranton. Why? Partly due to the fact that, while Specter lost the city to Edgar by 60,566 votes, Scranton lost the city vote to Casey by 134,515 votes. By holding down Specter’s loss in the city, we ensured his election statewide. Here’s how we did it.

Specter wanted to supplement the Republican apparatus where it existed and to field a street organization in the minority wards — and he was prepared to pay to get it done. I was charged with making it happen. We appointed a coordinator for each of a dozen regions and identified every single polling place in those areas. Next, we recruited poll workers for every one of those polling places where there was no Republican committee person; each would be paid $100 for manning a station from 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Intercepting voters as they arrived to vote, our recruits would make a special pitch for Arlen Specter. It’s pretty basic stuff but not the norm when it comes to Republicans working the minority community. I developed a time-card system in which poll workers would have an identification card that would identify them and their polling place and have three lines for signatures from a supervisor who had checked on them during the day to make sure they were appropriately manning their polls. At the end of the day, they were to present their cards with three signatures to the same person who had signed them, and then they would get the $100 in cash. Simple enough, or so I thought.

Our objective was to minimize Specter’s overall loss within the city of Philadelphia. Democrats outnumbered Republicans in the city at that time by a margin of four to one. The thinking was, if Specter could lose the city by a relatively small margin, he would win reelection, because the minimized city losses would be offset by gains in the remaining Republican portions of Pennsylvania. The program seemed like a great success; we covered the polls in the minority wards where the Republican Party had no committee people. There was, however, a relatively major glitch on election night. That afternoon, I had received a telephone call from Channel 10, then the Philadelphia CBS affiliate, asking me if I would be legendary anchor Larry Kane’s guest at 8:00 p.m., just as the polls closed. (Funny thing — I had met Larry Kane when I was working as a patio-furniture deliveryman for Mt. Lake Pool and Patio during high school. More on that later.)

Now, back in 1986, the prospect of being Larry Kane’s TV guest on election night was a big deal to me. I had done some political interviews, was taken with the Klieg lights, and very much wanted the notoriety that would come from playing a prominent role in a successful Senate reelection. All day long I managed our street operation without incident, but as dinnertime approached I was notified of a problem with the delivery of about $40,000 in cash, our street money for Hispanic poll workers. It seems the guy who was to oversee the delivery never showed up. I had no choice but to serve as the bagman myself. No problem, I thought. The big television debut was not scheduled to come off until the polls closed at 8:00. I could deliver the money to the payment location at about 7:00 and still make it to the live shoot by 8:00.

The Hispanic poll workers were to receive payment in a furniture showroom on North 5th Street in North Philadelphia. A supposed Specter supporter owned the store, hence the locale. I knew there was trouble brewing from the moment I opened the door. Already, our poll workers were assembling (even though the polls were still open for another hour). They were wet from the rain that day and many had been drinking. And in walked El Blanco (me) with a bag stuffed with $40,000. In the back room, I met with our captains, a half dozen Hispanic political operatives with whom I had worked well up until this very moment. They were sitting around a table in the middle of the room where the time cards I had developed to keep track of poll workers were strewn. They had never been distributed! They’d abandoned my method of keeping track of who had worked and which people were owed money for their efforts. I quickly realized that my captains had absolutely no intention of paying the promised $100 to each of the Hispanic poll workers. They wanted me to drop the money on the table and hit the bricks.

Television summoned. I was as anxious to get the hell out of there as they were to have me leave. But I couldn’t do it. For the next thirty minutes, we argued. Things got increasingly ugly. And I stayed put as the furniture showroom filled to the point where a crowd was now out the door on North 5th Street. As the clock ticked past 8:00, I sweated through my new Brooks Brothers suit and worried about my safety instead of my makeup. Now, our entire Hispanic workforce was assembled outside the room where we were bickering, and it didn’t take a degree from Berlitz to know what they were saying to one another. They knew several things: They were tired, hungry, and wet. Many were stoned. They hadn’t been paid. And the lone white guy in the building had all the money.

Suffice it to say I missed the TV hit. I would like to say that I ultimately left the building that night after everyone got paid. That wasn’t the case. As the emotion escalated and the clock inched closer to 9:00 p.m. on North 5th Street that night, I was still there and increasingly concerned for my safety. I consulted with Shanin Specter when I finally thought it had reached a point where I had no choice but to leave the money and run. He agreed. I am sure the workers who got slighted with payments of less than what they had been promised concluded that I was the problem. The truth was that I felt I did what I could on their behalf. I remember that the Specter victory party that night was at the University City Sheraton and, when I finally arrived, it was just in time to receive a message telling me to come back with another $50,000 or the furniture building would get torched. I didn’t and it didn’t. Welcome to Philadelphia politics.

When the Specter campaign ended, I was nearing the second half of my final year of law school and there was a great race on the local political horizon. Frank L. Rizzo, the former mayor of Philadelphia, had changed his registration from Democrat to Republican and was running to get his old job back. I’d had Rizzo as a pen pal when I was in grade school. In 1974, when I was a sixth grader at Doyle Elementary School in Doylestown, I wrote to then Mayor Rizzo and he wrote back. (I still have the letters in my attic!) Frank Rizzo had been elected mayor in 1971 and would be reelected in 1975. Although he would not be elected again, he would continue to dominate every single mayoral election in the city until his death in 1991. We were very close friends for the final fifteen years of his life.

The pen-pal relationship that began while I was in grade school continued into junior high, and then high school. As I was finishing high school, Rizzo was winding down his second and final term. When we finally met in 1980, he had just left office, and I was already in the process of earning my own political stripes. Our initial meeting was arranged in the summer of 1980 by a mutual friend, Bill Snyder. Bill drove me to Frank Rizzo’s imposing home in the city’s Chestnut Hill neighborhood. Rizzo immediately recognized my name as belonging to the young guy who had been writing him letters for years. A several-hour breakfast ensued and that day would set the stage for me to eventually move from pen pal to political operative in service to the former mayor.

While I had been in college and law school and working on Republican campaigns, Rizzo was busy planning a comeback. First, in 1983 he had attempted to return to City Hall by challenging his successor, Mayor Wilson Goode, in a Democratic primary election. Rizzo lost by 34,105 votes, out of 625,201 cast. (Good trivia: Goode was the only man ever to beat Frank Rizzo in any election.) Rizzo then spent the next four years planning a rematch, to occur in 1987. Marty Weinberg, Frank Rizzo’s right-hand man and political guru, kept a piece of paper in his suit pocket that summed up the battle plan. Frank Rizzo would have defeated Wilson Goode in 1983, he reasoned, if only the city’s 225,000 Republicans had been able to cast a ballot in that election. In other words, if Rizzo could hold his Democratic base and add to it the majority of Republicans who, it was widely believed, were Rizzo voters anyway, he could defeat Goode. The plan presupposed that Rizzo would hold his Democratic base even though he was switching parties, and it sounded plausible to me. In his two terms in office, he had cultivated a relationship with president Richard Nixon and had maintained relationships throughout his career with many Republicans at all levels of government. Weinberg’s thinking was simple: It was time for Frank Rizzo to change parties and seek his old office by running as a Republican so that he could face Goode in a general election instead of a primary election. The difference, this time, would be those nearly quarter million GOP voters who did not get a chance in 1983 to pass judgment on Rizzo vs. Goode.

To pull this off, Frank Rizzo, who’d been a Democrat all of his life, now needed some friends within the Republican Party apparatus in the city; and here I was — a guy he had known for years as a pen pal, a young man whom he had once entertained for breakfast at his house, and who had just put together a field organization for Republican Arlen Specter’s successful reelection effort. I met with Marty Weinberg and Frank Rizzo and was offered a senior position in the campaign. On the day of the general election, victory was not in the cards. The 225,000 Republicans were not enough for Rizzo to close the gap against Wilson Goode. The race was razor close, but Goode’s nearly unanimous showing in the minority community ensured his reelection. The overall margin was 2.7 percentage points. On election night, I remember riding back to Rizzo’s house with his wife, Carmella, and then going for a walk with the former mayor and Casey, Rizzo’s prized Irish terrier. That’s the way it ended. On a chilly November night, we walked in silence through the streets of tony Chestnut Hill, just Rizzo, Casey, and me. Frank Rizzo, as was his custom when we would walk Casey through his immaculate neighborhood, the safest in the city, had a .38 in his rear pants pocket.

Shortly after the campaign ended, Frank Rizzo and I had a falling-out that got ugly. Elsie Hillman, a close friend of then Vice President Bush and the statewide chair of his presidential bid, wanted me to manage the city of Philadelphia for the Bush presidential effort. She told me this was because of my bona fides with Bush (the advance work) and the two campaigns I had just engineered in the city of Philadelphia for Republicans. The only trouble was that this was a position coveted by Rizzo in an effort to stay front and center in the Republican Party. The Bush campaign, however, was reluctant to have him running its affairs. Although Rizzo never gave me the credit for doing so, I sold the campaign on the idea of giving Rizzo the title of Honorary Chairman, leaving me to be the nuts-and-bolts chairman/director. It didn’t matter. Some guys close to Rizzo convinced him that I’d thrown him under the bus, and I was quickly dead to him.

The headline in the Metro section of the Tuesday, April 19, 1988, Inquirer read: “Rizzo, Protégé Part Company over Bush Post.” It was embarrassing.

Rizzo and I did not speak for a period of three-plus years, which was painful for me. I really missed the man. By 1991 he had plotted yet another political comeback, and I had continued my political involvement while pursuing radio as a sideline. That 1991 Philadelphia mayor’s race was a milestone for me as a radio broadcaster. I had been on the air as a pundit, but this competitive election would give me a chance to wedge my foot firmly in the door of talk station WWDB. In a stunning upset, Rizzo captured the Republican nomination in a three-way race with Sam Katz and Ron Castille, but did not live to see the general election. Had he lived, Philadelphia would have been treated to a Frank Rizzo vs. Ed Rendell general election. Instead, Rendell was easily elected the city’s mayor.

Luckily for me, in the midst of the 1991 mayoral race I made peace with Mayor Rizzo, and it happened in front of five hundred people at a debate. Because of my growing radio presence, I was asked to moderate a candidate debate at the Union League of Philadelphia, a private club founded to support the Union in the Civil War. There were five Democratic candidates for mayor and three Republican candidates, one of whom was Rizzo. All but one of the candidates showed up. I controlled the questioning. In an ornate ballroom, here is the first one I put to Rizzo:

“Mayor Rizzo, what was your record while in office as it related to the city’s art community?”

These were the first words spoken from one of us to the other in years, and it was in front of a packed room. Now, to the uninformed ear, that would seem like a tough question for the burly former cop. You could easily have thought the question was a cheap shot. But Rizzo and I knew otherwise. He had quite an accomplished record of support for the arts and was, by way of example, very proud of having air-conditioned the Philadelphia Museum of Art. So in the candidates’ forum, Rizzo gave a long, detailed answer regarding his record. The question, I confess, was a setup, and it was my way of trying to make peace. Not long after, I was summoned to have lunch with him at the Palm Restaurant.

When we sat down, he looked at me and said, “I loved you like a son.”

“And I loved you like a father,” I responded, and then it was pretty much like old times.

Rizzo would live only a period of months after that dinner. He died on a Tuesday. We had dinner the Sunday night before he passed. We ate Italian, just like old times. He told the jokes I had heard before, and I laughed as hard as the first time I heard them.

I remember well the day Frank Rizzo died. I had just been appointed by the George H. W. Bush administration to the position of regional administrator of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. That gave me responsibility for all federal housing programs in the states of Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C. I was only twenty-nine years old. Although I had not formally begun my duties, I was spending some time in the new office in Philadelphia being briefed by staff. On July 16, 1991, I received a telephone message from Jodi Dellabarba, Rizzo’s secretary, saying, “The mayor needs to see you.” I relayed a reply that I would come to his office at 2:00 p.m. When my schedule unexpectedly freed up sooner, I went to his office and was bullshitting with Mayer “Bob” Cutler, a Rizzo friend, in the reception area of the office when word came from Tony Zecca and David Safronsky, two Rizzo friends and confidants, that the mayor needed emergency medical attention. Cutler and I rode the elevator to the street together and awaited the paramedics. When they arrived, we told them they were about to work on Frank Rizzo. They appeared disbelieving. Who could blame them? No one was more of a personality in Philadelphia at the time.

When they wheeled him away minutes later, I got a look at Rizzo on a stretcher and I knew it was over. Cutler and I did not run, we walked, to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, where Rizzo would be pronounced dead later in the afternoon. As we walked past strangers on the street, I knew we knew something that would shock and grieve this city — but even I had no idea to what extent.

The funeral for Frank Rizzo was the single largest outpouring and procession that I will ever witness. Thousands of people came to a viewing and then funeral mass at the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul to pay their respects, and when the service was ended, many of them drove the dozen or so miles just outside the city to the Holy Sepulchre Cemetery for the burial. The funeral procession turned out to be far more impressive than the outpouring at the church. That was because the cortege traveled north on Broad Street, through the heart of Philadelphia’s minority community, and along the entire route, the mourners were several deep. Frank Rizzo got his just due in death.

I rode behind the hearse in a ratty old station wagon that Cutler had used in a variety of campaigns, including the 1987 effort. Cutler was quite a character and that car was kind of a mirror image of him: disheveled, but somehow always able to get the job done. We’d nicknamed it the “Cutmobile.” Cutler would advance all of our campaign events, so he’d arrive prior to the mayor’s car, in which I would be riding. Invariably, as we would approach a campaign stop, we’d see Cut out front, standing with a finger in the air to direct our entrance. And without fail, Rizzo would say, “Hey, Weinberg, there’s your buddy Cutler. Let’s run him the f--- over.” We’d howl, even though he said it every single night (I’m smiling now as I write this). Cut had told me he thought it appropriate that we participate in the procession by taking the Cutmobile for a final spin and I had agreed. If Rizzo were looking down on us then, I know he’d have said something like, “Weinberg, get a look at those crazy c----uckers.”

Because of these and many other unique political experiences at an early age, I was soon invited to provide political commentary on Philadelphia television and radio. Politics was my foot inside the radio door, and I haven’t left the air since.

Excerpted from “Morning Drive” by Michael Smerconish. Copyright (c) 2009, reprinted with permission from Lyons Press.