When Widener University honors me this weekend by allowing me to be its commencement speaker, I will share with the students the reaction at our dinner table several months ago when the invitation arrived.
"Dad, the students must be bummed," was the response from our eldest son, himself in college.
His dismissal became a source of motivation. How to achieve my objective, I wasn't so sure. My thought process included reviewing well-received commencement addresses. Only I'm not Bono, Bill Gates, or Ali G. I'm not particularly funny. I try not to be verbose. And I don't live life by any particular quote.
I can report that being invited to deliver a commencement address demands introspection, an evaluation of one's life. In my case, there's more to be learned from the journey than the destinations I have reached. I know that sounds like a slogan plucked from one of those posters you order in the back of an airline magazine, but it's been the pattern of my entire life. Perseverance has been the hallmark of "My Climb," which became the working title of my speech.
I will begin by explaining that I'd attended the law school of my dreams (Penn) only because, after being wait-listed, I disregarded the application brochure admonition that interviews were not given, and parked myself in the admissions office until I attracted the interest of the dean. And that, while if you looked at my progression as a radio host on a graph it makes perfect sense (guest, then guest-host, Sunday night host, Saturday and Sunday morning host, afternoon host, morning-drive host, syndicated host, SiriusXM radio host), that doesn't tell the story of rejection and opportunities lost.
Like how for five years I was not only hosting a successful morning-drive program in Philadelphia, but also guest-hosting for Bill O'Reilly on 500 stations across the nation. I thought I was paying my dues.
But when O'Reilly decided to give up radio, his syndicator, Westwood One, didn't hire me. It said it wanted a "name" so instead hired a former actor (think Hunt for Red October) and U.S. senator named Fred Thompson.
I will share that MSNBC had me fill in for Joe Scarborough when he had a 10 p.m. program. Many nights I'd guest-host his show until 11 p.m. in Secaucus, N.J., then sleep in the back of a Town Car back to Philadelphia, only to get up at 4 a.m. to host my own morning radio show. Suddenly, Don Imus, the MSNBC morning man, was fired for an inappropriate comment. Quickly, they put me in his seat. I was given a weeklong tryout on live television. Funny thing, they ultimately gave the Imus show to Scarborough. Worse, I wasn't offered the Scarborough time slot either!
Soon came the 2008 presidential campaign. MSNBC launched a daily program called Race for the White House. It named David Gregory the host. I became a regular guest. So, too, did an Air America radio host named Rachel Maddow and Jay Carney, the Washington bureau chief for Time magazine. We appeared together daily.
When the campaign ended with President Obama's election, Gregory was asked to host Meet the Press. Maddow was given her own show in prime time. Carney was named director of communications for Vice President Biden and later became press secretary for Obama.
Me? I was the only one not to get a new job. Instead I received more fill-in work. This time for Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball. Whenever Matthews vacationed, I was in his chair. Just as I had done for O'Reilly and Scarborough, and by now for Glenn Beck too, on HLN. My ratings were strong. For five years, I was Matthews' go-to person. And, of course, I really wanted a show of my own.
The president of MSNBC, Phil Griffin, used candor that I appreciated even though his words stung. He said that while my fill-in work was appreciated by the network, I would never have a show of my own there.
"Smerc," he said, "we are young, liberal, and nerdy, and you are none of the above."
By now, my wife and I had four children. The older you get, the more difficult it becomes to take risks. I second-guessed the choices I'd been making and wondered: Had I sacrificed a stable and secure career path in the law to stroke my ego in the media?
I have Jeff Zucker, the president of CNN, to thank for a big break. In the middle of an ice storm 21/2 years ago, he invited me to meet with him on short notice. How to get there was an issue.
Our eldest son was then a senior in high school and he drove a Jeep. The only way I could get to New York City was to drive his vehicle. But while that son is a bona fide rocket scientist, he hadn't screwed the roof on properly, so it leaked, and the interior was filled with ice. I nervously drove up the New Jersey Turnpike sliding in my seat. Luckily, Zucker and I immediately bonded. In a conversation that didn't last 15 minutes, he offered me a show of my own on CNN. I celebrated, slipping all the way back to Philadelphia.
Today I'm pleased to host both a radio program heard nationwide on SiriusXM and a television show on CNN that bears my name, in addition to writing this column, which is routinely reprinted in newspapers across the country. But better than the wins has been the navigation of the path - steering around roadblocks and overcoming rejection.
I will tell the Widener graduates that while we all know people to whom things have come effortlessly, that hasn't been my experience nor can they assume it will be theirs.
"My climb has taught me that in order to succeed, you must first ask for the order.
"You'll need to request the meeting.
"So be prepared to introduce yourself.
"To write the email.
"Better yet - sign the letter.
"Make the phone call.
"Show up where not invited.
"And find a mentor. People like to be asked for assistance.
"Your level of success in life will be determined by your unwillingness to accept rejection and failure."
Then I will thank them, and say I hope they weren't bummed.