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Phil Donahue: American Pestilence


In the fevered recesses of Donahue’s mind, every problem afflicting African Americans was to be blamed, in one fashion or another, on white folk; as he saw it, the more a white person sincerely believed himself to be free of racist attitudes, the more of a racist he really was — as evidenced by his very failure to recognize the fact.

Absurd? Not to Donahue, whose sensitivity had been raised to such Alpine heights that he reveled in black hostility and actually seemed to glow in the presence of self-styled “racial awareness counselors” who would use their countless appearances on his show to heap calumny on white America — in terms that if used by whites against blacks would have immediately unleashed the canned outrage of the NAACP, the ACLU, the ADL, and all the rest of the nation’s “progressive” press release factories.

On matters of foreign policy and America’s place in the world, Donahue’s views can best be described as unreconstructed leftist; his scorn for the Pentagon was for years equaled only by his indulgence of the former Soviet Union.

Donahue’s trademark retort throughout the Seventies and Eighties to any mention of Soviet misbehavior or the need to maintain a strong American military was to shoot the camera a bemused look and mutter, in a tone oozing sarcasm, “Yeah, we know — the Russians are coming, the Russians are coming!”

The fact that in those days before Gorbachev the Russians were indeed coming or had already arrived — with crushing force all over Eastern Europe and Afghanistan and by proxy everywhere from Angola to Nicaragua — mattered not the slightest to Donahue; as a humanitarian of the left he was concerned first and foremost with the alleged sins of the United States and with what he believed to be this country’s inordinate fear of Communism.

But Donahue’s interest in race relations and foreign policy paled in comparison to his frightening obsession with feminism, and it often seemed that scarcely ten minutes could go by in the discussion of any topic wholly unrelated to the subject without Donahue’s attempting to make a (usually specious) connection.

The feminism of which Donahue was such a slavish sloganeer fit in nicely with the other liberal orthodoxies that took hold in the early Seventies in terms of its arrogance, humorlessness and intolerance; the high priestesses of the women’s movement were a particularly unhappy lot, forever searching out injustices real and imagined to confirm their status as victims: victims of men…of society…of religion…of history…of the laws of nature itself if their line of reasoning (loosely defined) were followed to its logical conclusion.

For Donahue and others like him, the appeal of feminism, much like the appeal of every other left-wing “ism,” stemmed primarily from the notion that distinctions of any kind are artificial at best and malicious at worst; that if someone is wealthier or smarter or more accomplished than the next person (or if men are generally more physical and aggressive and dominating than women), the credit or blame must lie with social conditioning, lack of opportunity, racism, sexism, capitalism, an unfair judicial system…anything but the inherent differences found among human beings from time immemorial.

Done In By the Monster He Created

By the time his long reign as king of daytime talk came to an end in the mid-Nineties, it was no longer politics that defined Donahue, but rather rank sensationalism — and so it was fittingly ironic that his end came about in great measure at the hands of his industry offspring; having spawned the ever-degenerating genre of trashy talk TV, he could only watch helplessly as the new kids on the block stole more and more of his viewers by out-sleazing the old master himself.

Oh, he tried to stanch the bleeding — as his audience continued to shrink he increased the number of shows devoted to weird relationships and dysfunctional families, but it was to no avail; America was by then a considerably more jaded country than it had been 20 or even 10 years before, and viewers of daytime TV were addicted to intimate confessions and public displays that at one time would have been unthinkable even to Donahue, who, try though he did, was unable to keep up with all the brash new competition.

Nevertheless, give the man his dubious due: He was the first, and for years the only, talk show host to publicize — and popularize — subjects that once were considered beyond the pale of decency; and given the veneer of his aw-shucks Midwestern innocence, he was the perfect pitchman for the new morality.

At its peak, Donahue’s influence was far greater than that of any other television talker of his era, those remnants of TV’s old guard — Merv and Mike and Dinah and Dick and even Johnny — whose programs featured innocuous chit-chat with Hollywood celebrities and who never used their high visibility to propagandize their viewers.

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


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