Michael Smerconish: My exclusive with Barack Obama

Posted: August 20, 2009

TODAY at 1 p.m., I'm set to interview President Obama during a live radio broadcast from the White House. We'll be in the Diplomatic Reception Room, where FDR once held his fireside chats.

Our conversation will mark the first time a radio host has interviewed this president live on the air, "on campus," as his advisers put it. It will also be the first time I'll meet Obama personally, although I interviewed him three times over the phone during the campaign.

The conversations went well. I think they generated some interesting dialogue about issues of importance to Americans. Of course, their substance isn't what I remember most. They bring to mind cold pizza, Easter bonnets, Tora Bora, the lightning round and the World Series.

Our first interview came during my family's annual trip to Clearwater, Fla., for Phillies spring training. Not willing to risk our three sons' roughhousing while I tried to question the potential leader of the Free World, my wife and I decided she'd make a pizza run with the kids at the appointed interview time.

But Sen. Obama was late. Ten minutes, 20. Half an hour. My wife circled the block with three boys and a pizza. Finally, I told them to come home. They did, the future president called and everything went smoothly.

IT WAS Good Friday, and Internet questions about Obama's religion had gone viral.

I recall that he seemed to pause before responding when I began by wishing him a Happy Easter. Maybe he was worried he'd been corralled by some right-winger looking to test his faith.

By that point, just about everything concerning Rev. Jeremiah Wright had been asked, but I had one lingering question. I asked Obama if he'd ever had a private disagreement with Wright over his incendiary sermons. Obama was saying he disagreed with Wright's sermons, but had he ever told Wright?

Obama said he hadn't. "But understand this," he told me, "something else that I think has not gotten reported on enough is despite these very offensive views, this guy has built one of the finest churches in Chicago. It's not some crackpot church." The minute he used the word "crackpot" - a word I love - I knew he'd made news.

Our second interview came less than a month later, just before the Pennsylvania primary. My focus was the pursuit of Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan.

In each of our discussions, I raised this point and will surely raise it again today. Obama's hawkish pronouncements on the subject had been criticized, though they would prove an important factor in my decision to vote for him. He didn't disappoint: "I have been very clear. If we see targets in Pakistan that we can take out with drone missiles and use the Predators that have been so effective, I think we've got to do so," he said.

When I spoke with him a third time in October in the final days of the campaign, I decided to make quick work of a wide range of topics.

We covered political opponents' use of his middle name, the Second Amendment, illegal immigration and his relationship with Bill Ayers. Plus the Phillies' run to the World Series.

The night of the interview was Game 1 of the NLCS with the Dodgers. I interviewed Obama five minutes before appearing on "Hardball with Chris Matthews."

From a satellite studio in Center City, I chatted with Obama while donning a Phillies jacket as my 10-year-old son spun in a desk chair next to me. I asked Obama which team he was picking to win. With his hometown White Sox's season ended, he went with the Phils. Campaign manager David Plouffe was a longtime fan, he reasoned.

I was also thrilled to have the chance to question him on a subject in which I've invested almost 20 years of time and energy - Mumia Abu Jamal.

Had he taken a position on the case, and if not, did he intend to do so? "I haven't, only because the details of this event I've never studied. I'm vaguely familiar with the fact that there's been a controversy around it. So let me just lay out a very clear principle: In my mind, if somebody killed a police officer, they deserve the death penalty or life in prison," he told me.

Amen to that.

Which brings me to today's interview. Since the beer summit, the national headlines have been dominated by the debate surrounding health care reform.

What's left to ask? I've been taking suggestions from radio listeners, friends and family. And I have prepared some very direct questions. There are no rules, and no setups.

Our boys have seen "National Treasure 2," and want me to ask Obama what was most surprising when he got to see the book of secrets available only to presidents. I don't know if that will make the cut.

Of course, I've also been following the often rowdy, incendiary behavior at congressional town hall meetings. The president's own events have resembled campaign rallies. My goal will be to fall between those extremes.

Many have made a cottage industry of analyzing my respect for Obama.

Truth is, I've always liked the man. My first impression was favorable, and the cheap shots directed at him have emboldened my wish to be fair toward his administration.

Does that mean I share his thinking in all respects? Of course not. But I respect his intellect, don't engage in sophomoric name-calling and try to remember that he is still the president even when our views differ.

I won't have much time. Whatever I'm allowed will be filled with dignified and respectful questions.

But I won't roll over.

Nor would he expect me to.

Listen to Michael Smerconish weekdays 5-9 a.m. on the Big Talker, 1210/AM. Read him Sundays in the Inquirer. Contact him via the Web at www.smerconish.com.

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