"My job is to take it from being a meteor and make it a fixture on the landscape," he said. "I've heard the same concern about guests, but I think everyone forgets what an incredible appeal TV has for most people. People love it when their parents see them on TV, when their friends see them--even when waiters come up to them in restaurants and say they saw them. These days, everyone wants to be on TV."
Mort does have one closely guarded secret. Take him away from the studio, put him in front of a rare prime rib at a nearby restaurant and he undergoes a startling transformation--into Mr. Nice Guy.
Maybe it's an act. But it's a good one, at least as good--and certainly more disarming--than his act on camera. Mercifully free of the self-dramatizing show-biz slickness of rival talk tycoons like Oprah Winfrey and Geraldo Rivera, Mort has the low-rent elegance of a pony-player who's on a hot streak at the track.
He refers to booze as "sauce," gladly admits his teeth are capped and is prone to all sorts of outlandish claims--it's somehow hard to believe he really wrote John Kennedy's U.S. Senate campaign theme song and served as a honor guard at Bobby Kennedy's funeral.
But for the most part he is earnest, affable, refreshingly self-critical and--armed with a head full of statistics--eager to do battle on any issue.
Maybe what makes him such a sympathetic character is that he has failed so many times before he became a hit.
Mort was divorced twice before marrying Kim, his 31-year-old wife whom he calls "Mommy." He organized the World Boxing League, which he admits "was a total failure--we got off one match and then it went down the tubes."
He was a flop at politics, a disaster running his own lobbying firm ("I went completely belly-up") and made barely a ripple as a singer, though he claims he made as much as $7,500 a week playing Reno and Las Vegas before abandoning that career for an unsuccessful stint as a political lobbyist.
In fairness, not all of Mort's tales are such tall ones. He claims to have been the only white artist on Stax Records, a leading R&B label. Mort said he recorded an album produced by Al Bell, whom he called "one of the greatest guys who ever lived."
Now head of Motown Records, Bell confirmed the relationship: "Sure I knew him--we go way, way back. We made a record, I produced the tracks on him. He's a great guy."
Still, Mort kicked around for years, never sure of what he wanted to do. He places part of the blame on his family, especially his dad.
"I think my whole confusion began when I was a kid and I wanted to get into show business, but my family didn't want me in it," Mort said. "I think I ended up going from one crazy thing to another because I didn't really like doing any of them."
Even once Mort established a singing career, he couldn't stick to it. "Everyone kept telling me what a great singer my father was, and while they meant it as a compliment, I looked at it as just meaning I was trying to follow in my father's footsteps. There I was, already in my 40s, and I still hadn't found my niche."
Mort started blowing smoke rings again. "Maybe I just have a short attention span. When I told my wife about this show, I said I was excited about it, but I couldn't see myself sticking with it for more than five years. I always seem to find another mountain to climb."
Of course, that doesn't mean Mort is ready to leave show business. One of the perks of his show's affiliation with Quantum Media is the firm's record industry connections--Mort is finishing up an album, due out later this year.
"I've already recorded my first song. Let's go over to the limo and I'll play it for you," Mort said, already on the move again. "I cut it in Nashville. It's called 'We Shall Rise Above It All.' "
Mort beamed. "The great thing is that it can really cross over in every direction--it's an '80s civil rights song!"
As Mort has often noted, he began his political life as a die-hard liberal, working for John and Robert Kennedy and getting himself arrested--so he says--seven times during the civil rights movement. "I was pretty radical left," he admitted, saying his shift rightward began with the abortion-rights movement in the mid-'70s.
It's hard to top Mort when it comes to political labels. "I'm a radical centrist," he boasted. "I'm the same Kennedy liberal I was 20 years ago. In fact, if John Kennedy were alive today, he'd be a conservative. He'd be the first to recognize that the liberals have saddled us with 40 years of ideas that haven't worked."
Some of those failed ideas, according to Mort, include the feminist ideal of comparative worth. "Totally opposed to it," he said. "We'd have a $600-billion deficit with that."
Welfare? "Get rid of it! It costs $161 billion each year and what it's done is cause economic enslavement."