2017, a fascinating year spent in good company | Michael Smerconish

France Climate Summit
Arnold Schwarzenegger, shown here during a trip this year to Paris, invited Michael Smerconish to his home in Los Angeles to talk political polarization and gerrymandering.

Since 2001, I’ve published more than 1,100 columns for the Daily News and Inquirer. Next year, Temple University Press will republish one hundred columns of my choosing complete with a new Afterword for each, and there will be a recorded version in my voice for Audible.com, all to benefit a local charity. More on that later. In the meantime, I just reread the 50 or so that I published in 2016. The breadth of subject matter astounds. Donald Trump, white privilege, Arnold Schwarzenegger, toe fungus, Bill Cosby, and vaginoplasty. It’s been quite a year.

I covered the Trump inaugural and the corresponding women’s protest march, after which I shared an Amtrak train with hundreds of women in pink. That there would be a dispute as to crowd size was immediately apparent to my naked eye. I criticized some of the missing — namely local House Democrats — who I argued should have been present to support the smooth transition of power.

A Connecticut town’s essay contest for high schoolers on white privilege caught my eye and prompted me to call an African American classmate 37 years after our high school graduation, finally taking him up on a yearbook inscription that read “give me a call.” We continued our conversation some weeks later when I saw him for a drink in Florida. I’d never previously given thought to what it must have been like for him to be the only student of color in many of my classes. I also eulogized my legendary high school football coach.  “My name never rose higher than third string in the two years I played for Coach [Mike] Pettine. Nevertheless, I praised lessons learned: Hard work. Commitment. Organization. Preparation. Discipline,” I wrote.

Arnold Schwarzenegger invited me to his home in Los Angeles to talk political polarization and gerrymandering. When he graciously allowed me to record a few minutes for use on radio, I asked about a recent tweet from President Trump in which the president gloated over the cancellation of The Apprentice TV show with Schwarzenegger as host.  “I think he’s in love with me,” the Governator responded. That comment went viral and I worried we’d lost the focus of the interview. Arnold had a different take: “If we can get people to pay attention to seven minutes of gerrymandering to hear me say the president might be in love with me, I’ll take it.”

I tried to apply what the price of Jublia, a topical solution I used for toe fungus, said about the escalating costs of pharmaceuticals. And I provided a trial lawyer’s view of what would happen if President Obama sued President Trump for a particular tweet  (“Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ at Trump Tower just before the victory”).  I reasoned Obama could meet the actual malice standard but not be awarded compensatory damages.

A botanist at Rutgers University named Thomas Orton sent me seeds for the Rutgers 250, an effort to re-create the best-ever Jersey tomato. While I chronicled my garden planting, I never circled back in print to report that August was a bonanza and the tomatoes tasted great. I even extracted a few seeds for planting next summer.

A jury summons made me reevaluate my prior answers on the standard questionnaire as to whether I’d be inclined to believe a “police officer or any other member of law enforcement officer because of his or her job.” “No” is now my answer. But similarly, I would not be “less” likely to believe a cop because of his profession.

More than a decade ago, I took umbrage in print with Pink Floyd cofounder Roger Waters after watching him from the front row at Madison Square Garden. Then, five years after 9/11, I took offense to his pleas on behalf of Gitmo prisoners. Sixteen years after 9/11, with some still not facing trial, I had to admit he had a point. Besides, as I wrote here, “perhaps the stadium rock show remains the last place where we cannot retreat into our safe echo chambers with like-minded people. And that’s not a bad thing.”

More than once, I commented on the Russian probe and raised questions about possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. However, I also saluted Trump’s pick for ambassador to Russia, Jon Huntsman, a selection that received too little mention.

Jean Twenge, a San Diego State University professor in personality psychology, wrote an impactful book: iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood — and What That Means for the Rest of Us.  In 2012, the year when the proportion of Americans who own smartphones surpassed 50 percent, she noticed abrupt changes in teen behavior and emotional states. The book is a must-read.

“I am DACA,” said a friend in my employ when Dreamers were in the news. He allowed me to use his name, but I decided not to for his own privacy and safety. I wrote, “if [he] is DACA, he’s the Central Casting version: Friendly; conscientious; and extremely hardworking. I never thought much about his immigration status.  … He’s 32, the father of two daughters – both American citizens, has a business, and owns both a home and car. But now he worries that his decision to come in from the shadows has left him vulnerable on the watch of an unpredictable president.”

The economy is up, but the president’s approval numbers are down. That made me wonder if, politically speaking, “it’s [still] the economy, stupid”?  So, I called up James Carville and asked him. His response was good column fodder. The short answer is a little less so than when he said those words in 1992, on account of more recent polarization.

And finally, I took great pleasure in writing about a normally sad subject: divorce.  After marveling about the way in which Larry and Ellen Ceisler were able to part company like adults and maintain a civil relationship, I decided to write about their modern divorce against the backdrop of Ellen’s election to the Commonwealth Court.

It’s been an interesting year.  I often feel like a Philadelphia version of the late Dominick Dunne from Vanity Fair. No, I’m not comparing my writing to his, only my similar good fortune in often being in the company of people whose stories profoundly reflect our times.