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Rendell is indefatigable as TV commentator

HARRISBURG - At 5:30 p.m. on Election Day, you could catch him live on Hardball With Chris Matthews on MSNBC.

Gov. Rendell participates in a BCC television show via the Videolink studio in Center City on Election Night. (Sarah J. Glover / Staff Photographer)
Gov. Rendell participates in a BCC television show via the Videolink studio in Center City on Election Night. (Sarah J. Glover / Staff Photographer)Read more

HARRISBURG - At 5:30 p.m. on Election Day, you could catch him live on Hardball With Chris Matthews on MSNBC.

Flipping over to CNBC at 6:45, you'd see him again, talking green energy and road repair with Mad Money's Jim Cramer.

By 7 he was dishing on U.S. politics for BBC viewers; at 9:45 it was back to state politics on a Pennsylvania Cable Network call-in show.

And the night was still young for Ed Rendell, easily the most visible governor in TV land.

He did four more appearances before 1 a.m. - and two more on morning talk shows. In all, he had 12 guest TV appearances in 14 hours, mostly on national networks.

So why is a 66-year-old lame-duck governor such a popular "get" for TV producers the world over?

Easy, say hosts who invite him. He's smart and entertaining.

"He's very candid, and he's gung-ho," said Matthews of Hardball. "He has the tenor of TV, the liveliness, the excitement, and the passion."

And he blurts things out.

Rendell has been a regular on Matthews' show since making headlines in 2000 when, to fellow Democrats' chagrin, he advised Al Gore on live TV to throw in the towel in the presidential race - even as Florida's votes were increasingly in doubt.

CNBC's Cramer, on the air with the governor late last month, put his finger on a Rendell quality, rare in an era of market-tested political messages: a tendency to cough up an unguarded opinion or an unpleasant morsel of truth.

"He speaks the truth. That's what makes him a great politician," Cramer said, "and a great guest."

Of course, Rendell can be frank to a fault. Unaware that a microphone was on, he once opined that Janet Napolitano would make a good homeland security chief because she "has no life" (he had to apologize). More recently, he branded fellow Democrats "wusses" on CNN for not defending the health-care bill and other parts of their agenda.

"I said that two weeks ago, and I'm still getting calls on it," Rendell said. As he put it, broadcast media and the Internet give such quotes an enduring "half-life."

But none of that has slowed his rate of appearances. If anything, according to figures provided by his office, he's ramped it up.

As of Friday morning, Rendell had made 196 guest appearances on national TV since January 2010. Make that 199: by late Friday, his weekend schedule included CNN (Wolf Blitzer), Fox (Greta Van Susteren), and Fox again (Geraldo).

That number compares with 119 guest appearances in 2009. And it doesn't count his football commentaries after every Eagles game on Comcast SportsNet.

Of the national networks, Rendell, a Democrat's Democrat and the party's onetime national chairman, has appeared most on Fox News. For instance: He's joined in the morning banter on Fox and Friends 10 times since January.

That puts him way ahead of most of his party's leaders. "No one else is willing to go on," he said. They are missing a chance to sway viewers, he says. "Fox has the biggest viewing audience - but at least one fifth of them are not absolutely sold."

Good use of his time?

Critics wonder if his TV time has taken away from his work as chief executive of a state with a passel of problems.

"It's one of his trademarks, theatrics over substance. It's not about Pennsylvania," said Steve Miskin, spokesman for state House Republican leader Sam Smith (R., Jefferson). "I hope these auditions work out for him."

On the matter of whether the time is well spent, Miskin said: "That's for others to decide."

Miskin contrasted his boss, Smith, who is in line to be the next House speaker thanks to last week's GOP victories. "It's not his style," Miskin said of Smith. "He's not about showboating."

Rendell spokesman Gary Tuma said the governor takes hardly any time getting to and from TV appearances - most of the videotaping is done either in a state facility one block from the Capitol or at VideoLink, a studio in Philadelphia a few blocks from his city office.

"He can be at the satellite facility in five minutes to do a show that's five or 10 minutes and be back at his next meeting in a short amount of time," said Tuma, who began issuing "Gov on TV" e-mails to reporters in May after the Capitol press corps realized Rendell was regularly making news beyond the Capitol.

When he is filmed at the state studio after hours, TV stations cover minimal costs of keeping a state crew on overtime, Tuma said, paying a total of a few grand a year.

For his part, Rendell says he's happy to oblige most any host who will have him on. He says he has turned down requests when state business demanded his time, and draws the line at any shows where there's a lot of yelling.

His favorite host? Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. "Rachel doesn't take herself too seriously," Rendell said. "That's what makes her popular."

He thinks his own comic side explains his TV popularity. "I have a sense of humor, I have fun," he said. "I'm not defensive, and they can usually count on me to say something colorful."

A taping with Tavis

It's Wednesday evening of the week before the election. A taping of the Tavis Smiley Show is about to begin. Rendell sits at the center of the state's Commonwealth Media Services studio in Harrisburg, in a navy suit and red repp tie, a faux fireplace and bookshelves behind him.

A technician tries to pat the gubernatorial face with some powder to take off the sheen.

"I left my makeup on, I did so many of these today," Rendell remarks.

Smiley leads off with a question about the ugliness of the ads and accusations in campaigns this year. He asks if Rendell is turned off by it.

"Part of me is turned off," he said. "The ads are vicious and nasty. One side gets up and says how they can get over on the other side. We've got to put the genie back in the bottle."

He opines about the recession and how, historically, the party in power always "pays for it" at the polls. He muses about how to hold back the Republican tidal wave. He defends the Obama agenda.

Thirty minutes later, in the same studio, he's on with CNBC's Larry Kudlow for a debate with Sen. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) over the new health-care law.

It's been a long day, and Rendell is kind of slumped in his chair. He doesn't look ready for prime time - yet. Don't worry, a producer advises: Rendell will sit up when the time comes.

Soon the debate intensifies. "Should children be denied health care!?" says Rendell, his voice rising, his back straightening. "That's not the way you fix it."

Coburn offers that there should be high-risk health-insurance pools created at the state level. Rendell fires back: Republicans want to cut "entitlements!" He says that means Medicare cuts.

Off camera, the producer observes, "He's riled up tonight."

Also off camera, Smiley asks Rendell about his plans after January, when the governor turns the executive mansion over to Tom Corbett.

The question shifts Rendell into contemplative mode.

Yes, he says - after 33 years in politics, he will miss it. "I've used my skills and intelligence to change people's lives. Will I get that opportunity again? No."

And yes, he says a little later, he plans to finish his memoir, keep teaching, keep doing sports commentary - but would also consider a regular gig on a TV talk show.

"If anybody wants to pay me for doing political commentary," the governor says, "I'll do it."