Political commentator Michael Smerconish is a throwback to a time in which Republicans could be liberal, Democrats were occasionally conservative, and extremists didn’t dominate the conversation. In his book Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right: American Life in Columns, the CNN and Sirius XM host discomfits those at either end of the political spectrum and engages the lost souls wandering in between. Reissued this spring in paperback, the book is a collection of columns Smerconish wrote between 2002 and 2016 for the Philadelphia Daily News and Philadelphia Inquirer.
Politics is text and subtext in Smerconish’s work, mirroring the increased politicization of American life over the past 30 years. His newspaper columns address topics familiar to his radio audience, from hot-button issues such as security profiling and the legalization of prostitution to less inflammatory matters, like his theory on what the color of Christmas lights says about a neighborhood.
Several pieces probe the social and geographic schisms that have deepened since Smerconish was growing up in Bucks County. There has been a sorting of people into like-minded groups who interact mostly with one another, fostering insularity and preventing cohesion across regions, income brackets, and ethnicities. And gerrymandering has helped office holders and political interests to design voting districts that better serve their own interests.
The book allows Smerconish to update each column with background tidbits and note whether his views have changed over time. Like half of the nation, he was shocked by the election of the current president, writing in 2017, “My failure to see Donald Trump’s ascension was compelling evidence of my being out of touch with 46 percent of the country.” In the postscript, he notes the influence of a supercharged media landscape on the 2016 election: “There was partisanship when I graduated from law school on Ronald Reagan’s watch, but not polarization. The media world was a rather liberal place. There was no internet, no cable TV, no satellite radio.”
Speaking in 2011 to the National Association of Broadcasters, he argued against programming to polarized audiences and for broadening outreach to new listeners and viewers. Then a syndicated host, Smerconish, whose positions are generally conservative, was unwilling to adopt the strident, unyielding tone that prevails on talk radio. Eventually, that reluctance would cause him to move his program to the satellite platform.
Similar misgivings about the Republican party led him to change his registration in 2010 to Independent, explaining to readers, “The national GOP is a party of exclusion and litmus tests, dominated on social issues by the religious right, with zero discernible outreach by the national party to anyone who doesn’t fit neatly within its parameters.”
Beyond the interviews
Smerconish has met lots of famous names, but it’s what happens around the interviews that makes interesting reading. As when he asked Cuban President Fidel Castro if he’d heard former Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo's claim that the city police force could invade Cuba and win. (Castro had not, and luckily, found the notion amusing.) Or when Smerconish took ex-Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf into a Montgomery County voting booth to demonstrate how Americans cast ballots. Or accompanied political operative and now convicted felon Roger Stone on a tour of Stone’s dandified closet.
Philadelphia and its suburbs feature throughout the collection, as do Smerconish’s family, friends, and fondness for rock music (apparent in his nod to the 1972 Stealers Wheel song he quotes for the book title and uses as his radio-show theme). He writes with affection about his three sons as they managed the family yard sale, the hardworking Bucks County tomato farmer, the housekeeper who became a cherished member of the family, and the favorite college professor he reconnected with.
Disagree, but don’t demonize
Writing in 2008 about the late political journalist Tim Russert, Smerconish said, “He was a facilitator of intelligent political conversation, not an enabler of the stark left-right, black-white, Democrat-Republican, liberal-conservative cable world in which we now live.” Which seems to be the columnist’s aim, and perhaps a reason the president of a cable network featuring Smerconish as a commentator and fill-in host told him he’d never have his own program on the network.
That’s the problem with political discourse as practiced in 2020. Total affirmation comforts viewers, but sabotages democracy. Democracy depends on dissent and compromise; it requires the airing of competing ideas, seeing and hearing those who think differently, and continuing conversations despite disagreement.
What, When, Where
Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right: American Life in Columns. By Michael A. Smerconish. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2020. 384 pages, softcover; $19.95. Get it here.