Earlier this month, Phil Donahue went before a gathering of
television critics to flack his new MSNBC prime-time program, and the
Hollywood Reporter's Scott Collins, at least, was impressed. "Donahue,"
wrote Collins, "sounds ready to reinvent himself from yacht-tripping retiree
to left-wing firebrand."
I'm confident that Donahue will make that transition with ease.
After all, he seamlessly segued from left-wing firebrand to yacht-tripping
retiree in 1996, when he ended his long-running daytime talk show. Since
then, his highest-profile political activity has been to stump for Ralph
The presumably tanned, rested and ready Donahue certainly seems
eager to spout in the manner to which we were once accustomed. He commented
to the TV critics that he believes in a high wall of separation between
church and state: "We've seen what theocracies do. Every one of those 19
guys on those four airplanes [on Sept. 11] talked to God every day."
He also is skeptical (I'm being generous) regarding our reaction
to the terrorist attacks. "All of a sudden our aircraft are heading to
Afghanistan," he declared to USA Today, and "somebody says, 'Let's think
about this,' and [he's told], 'You're blaming the victims!' You couldn't
talk about why" the attacks happened in the first place.
One reason Donahue relishes having his own show again is his
belief that the left has been largely excluded from the national media. In a
2000 interview with the Progressive, he complained, "Here we are, we brag
about our free-speech rights, and yet half the political spectrum is
[un]able to speak." Only conservatives and moderates, he added, "get to
speak. Their issues get on TV." This year, Donahue told the Associated Press
that liberal media personalities have "never really [been] given ... a
chance," and claimed that liberal "Crossfire" co-hosts Paul Begala and James
Carville actually are "centrists."
that Donahue is back.
I suspect even Carville and Begala are bemused by that labeling.
It serves only to put Donahue so far to the left on the spectrum as to fall
And yet, even this is not enough to convince some of Donahue's
leanings. The Los Angeles Times reports that Alex Jones, who heads Harvard's
Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, is
"waiting to see what Donahue has to say before putting him in [the liberal]
With Donahue having been an outspoken, nationally famous liberal
for more than three decades, that's like saying you'll wait to see the
second half of the baseball season before calling Barry Bonds a home-run
hitter. Even Harvard lecturers should understand that one.
Maybe Tamara Haddad, once the executive producer of CNN's "Larry
King Live," should run the Shorenstein Center. Haddad perceptively told the
New York Daily News, "Phil is the original activist as host." Indeed, on his
daytime program, Donahue was a crusader for numerous liberal causes, notably
abortion, and it's probable that he had some influence: In terms of sexual
morality, America clearly is to the left of where it was in 1967, when his
show went on the air.
The MSNBC program is not Donahue's first cable venture. In the
early and mid-'90s, he and former Soviet propagandist Vladimir Pozner
co-hosted a show on CNBC. Donahue's low point there was his response to
Pozner's assertion that "not much has changed" for black Americans since the
1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision upholding slavery. Donahue did not
defend his country's remarkable progress on racial issues; rather, he
brought up supposed civil-liberties infringements supposedly akin to Dred
Scott, such as the Court's 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick anti-sodomy decision.
By the way, if you're wondering what a Donahue show during
Monicagate would have sounded like, check out this screed from the
Progressive interview: "The media never homed in on the horrible, horrible
violation of ... Fourth Amendment privacy rights that was inflicted upon our
First Family by these righteous zealots ... It was beyond cruel what they
did. They took the entire First Family and turned everybody, including
[Chelsea], upside down by the ankles and shook them."
Don't be surprised if before long, MSNBC is promoting a Very
Special Episode of Donahue's show featuring our former Phallus in Chief.
How will Donahue fare in his comeback? On the minus side, he's
more out of step politically than he's ever been, as evidenced by his
misgivings about the war on terrorism. On the plus side, there is really
only one Donahue with probably enough of a market to generate the numbers
that can only improve MSNBC's miserable ratings.
My prediction is that Phil will annoy us from his cable perch
for a few years, until once more America tires of him. That's when he'll
hear his yacht -- or Marlo -- calling him again.