Politics proved a natural outlet for all this relentless drive. “When I first met him, he was hard-core right-wing. He was Reagan, Rizzo, Right,” says public relations executive Larry Ceisler, one of his closest friends. “And he probably wasn’t the most socially tolerant person. He basically saw the world in black and white.” Smerconish ran for state rep at 24 and lost; later, post-law-school, he found himself in the Office of Housing and Urban Development during the administration of George H.W. Bush, his pin-striped suits and often glowering countenance conjuring an image of a younger, handsomer Karl Rove. After leaving government to join the storied Beasley law firm, he used his political connections to remake himself as a part-time political pundit, laying the foundation for his radio career, first at WWDB and then at ’PHT, where a very public snit with Scaglione in 2001 led to his contract not being renewed. Scaglione tattled to the Daily News’s Stu Bykofsky that Smerconish’s ratings were “mediocre” and that “the radio show is a hobby and not his career,” and Smerconish returned fire with vitriolic verve, leaking an e-mail sent six months earlier in which Scaglione had expressed his wish “to build the station around you.”
Scaglione later begged — and got — Smerconish to return, and in 2003 Smerconish gave up law and committed to a career in media, doing the ’PHT show, penning newspaper columns, and foraying into guest stints as a “conservative” talking head in the company of Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck. His show became must listening for the power crowd that ran Philadelphia. “He was networked in, which goes back to his political years,” says Ceisler. “He knew a lot of people.”
Smerconish’s journey to a new political philosophy, if not a new political identity, has been just as public. He joined a cadre of other high-profile GOPers (most notably The Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan) who spent the better part of the last decade hand-wringing over the slow death of the Reagan era’s ideals of a strong defense and small government, watching helplessly as the far-right faction of the party veered the Bush administration into two unwinnable wars and profligate spending. Smerconish often mused on the air about his deep concerns with the party’s direction. The nadir came last year in the Denver airport, when he looked up from his USA Today to see a television monitor announcing that Sarah Palin had been selected as John McCain’s running mate. Disappointed — he believed Tom Ridge was the best choice — Smerconish headed to Minnesota for the GOP convention, where on his way to hear Palin’s acceptance speech he bumped into none other than Comcast exec David L. Cohen.
“You’re about to be wowed,” Cohen told him.
“You’ve got to be shitting me,” Smerconish replied, still skeptical. “By Sarah Palin?”
“No, I’m telling you. I met her, and she’s really more impressive than people are giving her credit for.”