When Truth is Stranger than Fiction
By Michael Smerconish | January 20, 2018 In the midst of the outlandish Birtherism allegations against President Barack Obama, I became eager to write a book about the negative impact that talk radio and cable television firebrands have on our national discourse and public officials. I’ve long held that we’ve ceded our public debate to men with microphones whose motive is profit, without regard for good governance. After I began mapping out the project, it occurred to me that I should try to make point in an entertaining fashion. Although I’d never presume to compare my work to his, Joe Klein’s roman a clef Primary Colors, an insider’s look at the 1992 Bill Clinton campaign, became my inspiration.
The result was TALK, my novel, published in 2014 by a small, Maine-based publisher called Cider Mill Press. Stan Powers, my protagonist, was born Stan Pawlowsky in Southwest Florida. This stoner and slacker parlayed a gift of recognizing popular classic rock into a successful career as a DJ, rising to afternoon drive in Pittsburgh on WBXM (or “Buxom FM” where his tag was “Let’s get Stanned!”). Offered the chance to host a morning drive program in his native state, Powers returns to Florida, only to see the station change format from rock to talk after he relocates. It is then that Powers is convinced to try his hand as a talk host by an industry consultant who tells him he need only follow conservative talking points. “Morning Power” is then a huge success, and Republican politicians covet the support of the voice that reaches the I-4 Corridor, the home of bellwether voters between Orlando and Tampa. Stan Powers is suddenly a kingmaker, but trouble looms when he personally disagrees with everything that comes out of his mouth. Invited to speak at the GOP convention in his hometown, he must finally decide whether he will help elect a flawed candidate favored by his radio persona, or be true to his own instincts.
The book was no bestseller, but I nevertheless received immediate overtures from Hollywood. Rod Lurie who wrote and directed The Contender (2000) was initially interested in a movie adaptation. Then a division of Warner Brothers optioned the rights for a possible television series and attached an A-team of skilled and seasoned professionals including director/producer Mike Robin (Major Crimes, NYPD Blue, The Closer, LA Law) and producer/writer Jim Leonard (Major Crimes, Dexter) to generate a pilot script and pitch it to possible outlets. Sitting in those pitch meetings was itself book worthy despite the lack of positive result.
After the backlash over no African-American nominees in the 2015 Oscars, TALK was re-tooled. My southern, white, protagonist with an ear for classic rock was changed to a Detroit hip-hop DJ (enter Stan “The Man” Poulet), and Cedric the Entertainer was attached to spark interest. I had quite a thrill sitting next to the talented comedian of Barbershop fame when he spoke of his desire to play a character born in my mind’s eye.
In the end, the television series didn’t find a home, and I think the script now lies in the same warehouse where they took the Ark of the Covenant in the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. One reason for the rejection: the storyline of a know-nothing DJ who becomes a talk radio host with the power to elect a president was just too fantastical. “Far-fetched.” “Unrealistic.” “Could never happen in America,” I was told.
Then came Donald J. Trump, whose inauguration was one year ago this weekend. I can only imagine the reaction had I written a novel about his improbable rise and presidency before they occurred. Imagine the reaction to this pitch:
Picture a businessman with an outsized personality but no elective experience, a reality TV star on his third marriage, who nevertheless attracts support among evangelical Christians. This Bulworth-like candidate opens his campaign by calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” and proceeds to pursue a more opposite path than even George Costanza in that legendary episode of Seinfeld. He demeans a former POW who is now a U.S. Senator and former standard bearer of his own party. Then he mocks a disabled reporter, again with no decline in his political fortune. “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” he says in route to vanquishing a crowded field of more experienced candidates.
In the general election, he squares off against a Yale Law School educated former First Lady, U.S. Senator, and Secretary of State - to whose political campaigns he previously contributed money. As America contemplates electing its first female president, a videotape surfaces where the former reality star brags of grabbing women “by the p____”. Multiple women come forward and say that he sexually assaulted them in the past. Still, on Election Day, he loses the popular vote but wins the Electoral College.
Wide angle: Oval Office. On day one, the new president jousts with the press over the size of his inauguration. He eschews protocol and converses with his supporters via Twitter, all the while churning through staff and even firing the FBI director amid an investigation into whether his campaign was in cahoots with the Russians. He derides a nuclear adversary with a playground moniker, observes that some white supremacists are “very fine” people, and refers to portions of the developing world as a “shithole”. A tell-all book enrages him yet he promotes it. Opponents question his mental fitness just as a porn star emerges with a tale of a torrid affair.
As his first year winds down, and amidst a 24/7 torrent of criticism, the tabloid-hardened former Manhattanite lets no slight go without response and establishes himself as the most consequential president of the modern era. After rolling back regulations and cutting taxes to the delight of Wall Street, he presides over the highest close of the Dow Jones Industrial average while unemployment falls. He re-populates the federal bench in his image, withdraws from the Paris Climate agreement, and pulls out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. ISIS loses what it regarded as its caliphate in Mosul and Raqqa, and “Little Rocket Man” opens discussion with his neighbors for the first time in years.
America holds its collective breath as mid-term elections loom.
Fade to black.