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 Nader.
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 nineteen guys on those four airplanes [on September 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."
Yup, 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 off.
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] camp."
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.