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Phil Donahue: American Pestilence


Phil Donahue was just such an adult: Outwardly a mature, married man with several children, but inwardly a shallow bucket longing after the empty cliches and sham pieties mouthed by scruffy, sandaled “flower children” and ignorant dormitory “revolutionaries” living off generous allowances and trust funds.

An eager imbiber of the waters of New Consciousness, an avid believer in any hip nostrum expounded by the lead singer of that week’s hot rock ‘n’ roll band, Donahue was emblematic of a phenomenon that swept the country in the late Sixties and early Seventies: the utter intimidation of the white establishment ruling class by its young.

This surrender of the culture to a small but extremely vocal segment of the population would change America in a manner so profound that the American MIAs who returned home from Vietnam in 1973 could barely recognize the nation they’d left behind just a few years before; as one of the repatriated soldiers lamented, “Everything is different — the way people dress, the way they act, even the way they think; this is not the country I once knew and loved.”

Phil Gets a Talk Show

It was during this time of great social ferment that Donahue began his career as a television talk show host in Dayton (over the years he would move the program from that relatively small Ohio city to more impressive zip codes, first in Chicago and later in New York); thanks to syndication, the program would eventually be carried to stations across the country and Phil even found himself appearing on covers of national magazines, toasted as a man of uncommon talent and rare intelligence.

Perceptive viewers noticed a change in the show’s tone sometime in the mid-Seventies: Yes, Donahue could still be counted on to provide a forum for serious discussion of substantive matters, but such exercises in integrity became more and more infrequent as the host’s fascination with all things abnormal grew at an astonishing pace.

Not that this was this by any means an objective fascination — something like, say, an anthropologist’s dispassionate study of social and cultural curiosities — that drove Donahue; no, this was an all-out fixation (shared by the legions of liberals of that era who raised the white flag at first sight of the onrushing counterculture) on the notion that objective truth is nonexistent and that therefore all philosophies, religions and lifestyles are equally valid or invalid.

Even more insidious was the manner in which Phil would approach, and reproach, any member of his studio audience who dared question the ethos that permeated the show.

Far from trying to browbeat dissenters, Donahue employed an essentially theatrical approach made all the more effective by its subtlety; he was, in fact, nothing less than masterful in the sly use of the raised eyebrow, the rolling eyes, the imploring voice.

In short order his audience was trained to instinctively recognize those responses that pleased Donahue and those that triggered his facial contortions, and soon it was commonplace for sweet little old ladies in the studio to raise their hands and deliver themselves of the sort of New Age psychobabble guaranteed to warn Donahue’s liberal heart.

And thus was born on the Donahue show that peculiar sport of liberal one-upmanship that is now such a staple of television talk programs as audience members battle it out to see who can come off looking the most tolerant; of course, any discerning viewer watching at home knows — absolutely, positively knows — that those sentiments in no way reflect what the speakers are really thinking as they behold the representatives of whatever “alternative lifestyle” is being championed on that particular day.

However disingenuous the responses from the studio audience, they served Donahue’s purpose by strengthening the message of non-judgmental open-mindedness (to the point of empty-headedness) pushed so relentlessly on his show; even the most independent-minded viewer could not help but be influenced by the day-in, day-out exposure to the sight of nice, polite, salt-of-the-earth Americans genuflecting before people who in a saner, less politically correct time would have been scorned, without guilt, as freaks and misfits.

Politically Correct Before The Term Existed

Donahue’s enthusiasm for behavior once considered out of the mainstream was of a piece with his politics, and one need only consider the haste with which liberals like Donahue embraced a values-free rhetoric and an anti-American worldview to understand how and why mainstream liberalism lost its way.

Racism, specifically white racism, was one of Donahue’s consuming passions — a worthy concern to be sure, but Donahue assuaged his own feelings of racial guilt by routinely conjuring up a vision of a racist America so hellish and detached from reality that it no doubt prompted even such accomplished practitioners of the race hustle as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton to snicker with contempt.

About the Author: Jason Maoz is the Senior Editor of The Jewish Press.


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