Excerpted from TALK: A NOVEL by Michael Smerconish by arrangement with Cider Mill Press (USA), LLC., Copyright © Michael A. Smerconish 2014
A few weeks later, it was announced that I’d been chosen as a panelist for the GOP debate at the Reagan Library. Not long thereafter, Alex got a phone call from a Bill Maher producer. The debate at the Reagan Library was set for a Monday night, the night before the California primary. The stakes were big for Haskel and James. She could finish him off with a win in California. But a James victory in California meant the GOP battle might be settled in New Jersey, New Mexico, Montana or Utah—or not until the floor of the Republican National Convention. So of course, Haskel was going all in for Cali. And on the Democratic side, there was a similar sense of finality between Tobias and Baron. The seven-way sprint that began with the surprise withdrawal of a sitting president’s candidacy, looked likely to wrap up with a Tobias victory on the left coast. Funny thing, the more I’d questioned his religious conviction, the higher his numbers seemed to rise among the core of his party—the exact opposite effect I’d had among Republicans. I might be killing his chances in a general election, but I was actually helping Tobias secure his party’s nomination, not that I thought Susan would be giving me credit anytime soon.
The Maher producer wondered whether I’d be willing to be a panelist on Maher’s HBO program, Real Time, the Friday before the debate. For me it was a no-brainer. Here was a great opportunity to expand my visibility in left-wing circles on the eve of the GOP debate. Jules, too, thought it suited our objective because Maher was watched by anyone who mattered in the world of punditry, even those who would never admit it. He said it was all about enhancing visibility for potential program directors.
“Everyone on the left and right watches him, Stan. The only difference is that the conservatives pretend otherwise. It’s a great opportunity to build your brand with syndicators and potential affiliates.”
“You’re getting sandbagged, Stan. The only reason he’s invited you on is because you’ve embarrassed Tobias by questioning whether he’s a conventional Christian. Maher loves the idea that Tobias might be what your audience loathes.”
Phil was more animated about this than anything we’d discussed since my in-studio interview with Tobias. He was insistent that before I commit, I first watch Maher’s movie about religion, which I promised to do, but never did. Big mistake. It would’ve let me know what was coming.
“And I’ll tell you another thing. That audience will fucking hate you. He’ll put you in the wing-nut chair alongside two Hollywood types, and nothing good comes from getting heckled by Bill Maher in that lion’s den.”
I could tell from Phil’s detailed analysis that he was among the regular viewers, just as I would have suspected. Still, as I protested, he remained firm.
“Remember, he gave all that money to Obama. Our audience will think you are pandering to Maher unless you cold-cock him. I say don’t take the risk.”
This was the first time I could remember there being such a sharp difference of opinion between Jules and Phil. Then again, they had separate roles and it might have been the very first time their interests had collided. Jules’ job was to increase my platform and cut deals. Any notice on a national stage was going to help him make the case to syndicators (and thereby to potential station affiliates) that I was a sufficient radio star to warrant a national rollout. Phil’s role was to ensure that I was always saying the right things to cultivate support from the talk radio base, thereby enabling Jules to grow the platform. In this case, Phil’s argument was that Jules’ efforts would be hampered by any association between Maher and me since he was viewed as a pariah by the program directors of conservative talk stations. Jules’ response was that the PDs didn’t have to like me—they just needed to be able to see my name in lights. Phil and Jules had a healthy respect for one another, but they never actually spoke, and this time was no exception. Instead they made their independent arguments to me and left the decision in my hands.
My brain agreed with Phil, but my ego sided with Jules. I found the idea of flying to California early for the debate and being a big shot on HBO intoxicating. If unpredictability was the issue, I rationalized to Phil, then how different could it be from the risk of taking a live call on radio and not knowing what the person was going to say?
“On any given morning, I never know what might happen when I answer the phone,” I said to him.
“Stan, the only difference amongst your callers is their shade of red,” he answered. “This live audience will be a sea of blue and we can’t afford a YouTube moment.”
What I didn’t tell either of them was that I was myself a pretty avid Maher watcher. I didn’t always agree with him and thought he was pretty acerbic, but I liked the politically incorrect nature of the program and certainly sided with him on legalizing pot. Maybe I should wear short sleeves, I wondered? Of course, Maher didn’t know what was emblazoned on my forearm—and even if he did, I was still an unlikely ally. The only thing he’d know was that I was a conservative talker from Tampa with an increasing amount of influence on the other side of the aisle in the midst of the presidential race. And, he’d surely know that I had raised questions with regard to Tobias’ faith. Which is why Phil was worried that I would be a particularly attractive candidate for a Maher ass-kicking on national TV just a few nights before the debate. So one more time, I circled back to Jules for some confirmation.
“Phil’s right to be cautious,” he said. “But if you think you can handle Maher, the payoff in visibility could be enormous. The timing is perfect. I wasn’t going to tell you Stan, but today I spoke with Chuck Schwartz from Panache Broadcasting and he has room on his roster. You are on that short list, although you may have to change time slots because it’s tough to syndicate a morning show.”
That was the only encouragement I needed. I flew to LA as HBO’s guest on a Thursday right after Morning Power and checked into the Beverly Hills Hotel, all on HBO’s dime. Pulling into the driveway off Sunset Boulevard I saw the iconic, pink outline that I first came to know as the cover art for the Eagles’ Hotel Californiawhile studying the vinyl in my Ft. Myers bedroom. I felt that my career had come full circle. Then I wondered if it was an omen as the title track’s lyrics popped into my head with a sense of foreboding.
I spent the late afternoon sipping bloody marys at a cabana, and watching a pair of thongs swim laps in a pool that played music through underwater speakers. Later that night, I drove a rental car a short distance to the Whiskey A-Go-Go to see some live rock. The room that had once hosted the likes of the Doors, Guns and Roses, and Van Halen was filled with twentysomething headbangers listening to a Scandinavian band that looked like they were from Spinal Tap, only they were too young to have known what I was talking about if I’d asked whether their amps where turned up to “11.” Maybe I’m too old for this shit, I thought. Anytime I wore my old concert t-shirts around my condo, Debbie would say, “Time to retire it, Stan.”
The next day I ate breakfast at a diner-like counter in the basement of the hotel while sitting next to a starlet who was famous for being famous. She’d either shoplifted or had one too many DUIs. She may also have recorded a few songs, but I was sure that in ten years no one would remember her name unless she OD’d in a room upstairs. Then again, maybe if she knew who I was she might say the same thing about me.
At noon, I was scheduled to have a conference call with the Maher producers who wanted to review the show’s agenda. The proposed issues were all political and the same as what I’d spent the previous couple of days discussing on air back in Tampa, so I felt no need to cram on any current events. They told me they’d send a limo to the hotel at six, so I decided to head back to the pool, which is when I looked at my iPhone and recognized Phil’s number.
“Dress the part,” he said when I called him back.
“What does that mean?”
“No open-collared casual. Be loyal to your persona. You are not playing to his base, you are playing to your own. Your audience will respect you only if you step into the lion’s den and stand your ground. Fuck those Hollywood phonies. And put a flag on your lapel.”
So much for the short sleeves. I went to a souvenir shop a few blocks off Sunset and bought a flag pin, following Phil’s instructions. He may not have wanted me to do the show, but I was still taking his advice on how to best pull it off.
Back in the room, a bottle of champagne had been delivered with a cheese tray. It was from Jules. With the hour drawing near, for the first time, I began to feel nervous. It happened when I started thinking about the road from Shooter’s to Pittsburgh to Tampa to Hollywood. Never, while spending way too much time in my bedroom during high school wearing monstrous headphones, could I have envisioned that I’d end up here.
Maher’s program is done live from a soundstage that doubles as a game show set. The audience of a few hundred are there because they share his liberal political views, and during the pre-program warm-up with a producer, they get worked into a frenzy while loud, thumping music plays over the house sound system and previous show highlights roll on video monitors. It feels like a political disco by the time the show starts. I arrived about 45 minutes before we went live, and was sent to make-up and then to my own green room. That’s when the show’s executive producer stopped by for a final run through, during which he told me my seat location.
“You’ll be in the chair nearest the audience.”
I felt a bead of sweat pop out of my forehead. That was just what Phil had predicted. Phil had said that location was a “tell,” a tip to the audience to recognize me as the evildoer on that night’s program from the start. On this night, it also meant that to my immediate left would be a guitar player who most people knew for his music, but whom I recognized for his once having headlined a benefit concert for Mumia Abu-Jamal, a convicted cop killer. In Pittsburgh, I had refused to play his music. To his left would be a B-list actor who’d appeared in a number of films that had earned the respect of those who bestow Academy Awards, but not of the Americans who actually go to the movies. What they had in common was an unyielding liberal ideology. I was no closer to them on the issues than I was with my talk radio brethren. In my mind, both extremes were full of shit.
After his monologue and brief interview with some environmentalist, Maher joined us and immediately zeroed in on me.
“So Monday night is the final Republican debate of primary season, right here in California,” he began. “Margaret Haskel and Wynne James are ready for a steel cage match at the Reagan Library where you will be a debate panelist. My audience might recall that several weeks ago, it was you who put the faith of the Democratic frontrunner, Bob Tobias, in play. In fact, you’re the guy who criticized his failure to publicly adhere to a particular faith. What was all that about?”
“Well, I simply wanted to clarify what beliefs he holds,” I responded. “I think it’s important to know….”
I was just getting started on Phil’s talking point when Maher interrupted.
“Who cares? What does faith have to do with anything?”
Maher suddenly sounded like Debbie quoting me on my drunken drive home from Bern’s. Only this time, there was applause from a live audience. The studio suddenly felt warm and I could feel the television cameras bearing down on me.
“I think it’s legitimate to ask presidential candidates about the depth of their beliefs, to know from where they draw guidance, and to understand whether they recognize the country as having been founded on Judeo-Christian values.”
The Judeo-Christian line was pure Phil. Only this wasn’t a studio audience of talk listeners, it was the antithesis. And I wasn’t finished.
“I think all of us want to know, Bill, whether candidates attempt to live their lives in accord with the Ten Commandments.”
Well that did it. It was as if I’d pushed a nuclear launch code. The last part caused a core meltdown.
“Wait a minute. You mean you believe in the Ten Commandments?”
The combination of laughs and groans from the audience were audible to me on stage, and I was sure they were at home as well.
“You think that if some creator of the universe were sitting around and came up with a list of ten rules for humans he’d put on the list relaxing on Sundays, but would leave off rape and child molestation?” Maher asked incredulously.
The audience reaction was a combination of laughter and applause. I feared that the vein shooting out of my forehead would be visible on TV as I tried to maintain my footing. Phil had anticipated this and told me to disregard the assholes in the studio audience, and think only of those in flyover country who comprised the crowd I was seeking to reach. While it was true that he hadn’t wanted me to do the show, as soon as he realized I was going on anyway, he had patiently schooled me on how to create a controversy which would put me at odds with Maher over God, and rejuvenate interest in Tobias’ faith all at the same time. And I have to say that his strategy was genius.
“I absolutely do, Bill. And I would think that even a nonbeliever like you would recognize the virtue of leading a life free of killing, stealing, and sleeping with another man’s wife—even if those things are the lifeblood of this town.”
That was part two: A direct assault on Hollywood. Phil had made me repeat the line about “this town” incessantly before I flew to California, and he’d done it again in his final pre-show prep that afternoon.
Now I heard outright hissing. I had gone and launched an assault on the entertainment industry, right here in the heart of its capital. And, caught up in the role I was playing, I relished firing off that sound byte. The rock star to my left wanted in on the action. So too did the actor whose awards to date were only critical acclaim. What they said, I cannot recall. I only know that Stan Powers and Phil Dean had thrown a stink bomb into the studio which was going to live on long after the stage went dark. By the time the conversation turned to the way America’s standing in the world was still suffering from the way in which the Bush Administration had fought al Qaeda so many years prior, I was totally in character and ready to keep firing.
“We deserve whatever comes from the Muslim world when our uniformed representatives resort to tactics such as waterboarding,” said the actor, two seats away, to great applause. Maybe I’d have let that pass if I hadn’t already been ridiculed for supporting the Ten Commandments. But not tonight.
“Wait a minute,” I protested. “Only three al Qaeda—three!—were ever waterboarded. And that was after our efforts to get information by offering them a latte from Starbucks failed. And for all the criticism leveled at Bush, not even Obama ended the rendition program, or even closed Gitmo. And so while it’s nice to sit here in Hollywood and talk about a world of peace, love and harmony, I think it’s more important to first ensure that we’re around to experience it.”
That comment went over the head of the two jerkoffs on the panel, but I think I actually heard two or three people in the audience clap.
And so went the rest of the program. When it ended, I passed on the after-party, deciding I’d rather drink alone in the Polo Lounge than with these left-wing assholes. I had as much desire to hang with them as I would to hang with the sacks of shit who dominated my industry from the opposite end of the ideological spectrum. To both sides, everything was black and white, and the other side was sinister and always wrong. Fine. I’d hang alone.
In an SUV, being driven back to the hotel, I looked at my iPhone for the first time in hours. There were a few hundred new texts and emails. I was surprised the device hadn’t overheated from the volume. It seemed like everyone I’d ever known had watched the show and had a reaction. I looked at the texts first. There were so many that it took quite a bit of scanning to even find Debbie, Jules and Phil. And, of course, I wondered if I’d hear from Susan.
Debbie: “Everything you believe was said on that show tonight. Just not by you.” Damn.
Phil: “I told ya so. You should have kneed him in the balls and walked off. But on balance, we’ll take it. The only YouTube moments you created were in defending God and country—the P1s will love it when it gets replayed on cable.”
Jules: “Proud of you. This will help us. Try to get some rest Stan. Monday is a big night.”
Holy shit. Monday. It had almost become an afterthought. In three days I’d be a panelist for a presidential debate for which I’d hardly prepared. Until now I’d had a great game plan: The news cycle was changing so rapidly that I’d convinced myself I need not prepare until the weekend lest I’d waste time crafting dated questions. But suddenly, with Real Time behind me, I regretted that approach.
There was no message from Susan, but I knew that her preferred mode of communication was to leave a telephone message at the station. Maybe I’d have to wait until Monday.
There was, however, another text that caught my eye. It was from Jackson Hunter asking that I call him tonight, no matter the hour. The name didn’t even register at first. And then I remembered that he was the advance man who traveled with Margaret Haskel, the guy she’d made the point of saying I should regard as her eyes and ears and use as a personal conduit. I wondered what he wanted, but there was no way I was calling him, at least until I’d had a Jack or two and cleared my head. Crawling down a busy Sunset Strip on what was now an active Friday night, my phone rang with a blocked number. I hoped it was Susan and so I answered. It wasn’t. It was Jackson Hunter instead.
“I don’t know if you got my text, but I’m in town and the Governor would really appreciate your giving me five minutes.”
He left me little wiggle room.
“I’m not sure I can do that because I’m already back at my hotel for the night.”
“That’s perfect. I’ll meet you in the Polo Lounge in a half-hour.”
Kinda creepy. I hadn’t told him where I was staying.
I needed a head start, so 10 minutes later I was seated in a booth at the iconic watering hole awaiting what was already my second drink when Hunter approached my table and sat down, looking like he’d just stepped off the pages of a J. Crew catalogue.
“Great job tonight, Stan. The Governor loved the way you didn’t take any shit from Maher.”
“Somehow I didn’t figure she’d be in the demographics I was reaching.”
“Don’t sell yourself short, Stan. I’m sure there were many on our side who tuned in tonight specifically to see whether Morning Power could play in the big leagues. And you certainly silenced any doubt.”
Our side. I didn’t even find that objectionable. Not after the way the rock star, actor and comedian had tried to gang bang me in front of a national audience.
Someone downed the dimmer switch in the bar, and a piano player began his set. Hunter was now drinking a Coke with a lemon slice. I was ravaging a dish of nuts.
“Stan, this was just a warm-up for what’s to come in three nights. You have an enormous opportunity to shape the fight for the nomination on Monday night, and the presidential race overall. The governor is sure you will be up for the task. And she hopes you will not be offended if I leave you with a few thoughts.”
I said nothing. I just sipped my drink.
Hunter reached inside his coat pocket and pulled out a nondescript white envelope. There was no addressor or addressee. It was just a white envelope that, judging from its width, held only a sheet or two of paper. It reminded me of listeners handing me packages at Gadsden flag rallies. Like the one that purported to be a Scientology audit.
“Just for your consideration,” he reiterated, placing it on the table.
I didn’t immediately retrieve what he was handing over. I just let it sit in front of us and took another sip of my drink.
“You know, Stan, once Tuesday’s primary is behind us, Governor Haskel will shift her focus to planning the summer convention. And that includes the roster of those who will be invited to speak in a supportive role in prime time while the nation watches.”
This must be what Jules had referenced. Damn, this young guy was smooth. Nothing that was happening could be proven in a court of law, but it was pretty clear to me that there was a quid pro quo. Something in that envelope could help determine the outcome of the debate. And my willingness to use it was directly tied to a speaking role at the GOP convention in Tampa.
For the second time since my arrival the previous day, the foreboding lyrics of “Hotel California” popped into my head: “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”
Hunter excused himself and told me he’d see me Monday night. I watched him leave and ordered my third drink. Then I pulled out my iPhone to go through a mountain of emailed reactions to the program that by now was finishing its second airing of the night. As I thumbed through the lot, I thought about the education I had gotten in just the past 24 hours. For starters, I’d learned that a former DJ could, within a few years, be a presidential power broker in the United States. Others might see a Horatio Alger tale. I suddenly felt like I was living in a banana republic. I’d also confirmed that prime time at a national convention was something that could be negotiated in a back room, or at least the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel. I looked at the envelope and wished I’d told the pretty boy to shove it up his ass. Instead I slid it inside my coat pocket and took another sip of my drink.