Now, six years after the white-haired one hung up his mike and canceled the talk show that garnered 20 Daytime Emmys, he's back. Early this year he received a call that astonished him as much as it delighted him: MSNBC was offering him a prime-time news show that would run five nights a week opposite Bill O'Reilly on Fox and Connie Chung on CNN. It was a call that Donahue, a 66-year-old father of five and grandfather of two, never expected, especially given that, two years earlier, he'd campaigned for presidential candidate Ralph Nader on a platform that challenged corporate power.
The June afternoon I met him in the Manhattan apartment he shares with his wife, actress Marlo Thomas, he was as full of zest and chutzpah as he'd been during his three decades on television. He greeted me in a foyer filled with pink peonies, then led me to a glass-enclosed wraparound terrace overlooking Central Park and most of Manhattan. Between sips of Passion Peach iced tea, he talked about everything he's learned from television—and why he feels the conversation we need more than ever is being silenced.
Start reading Oprah's interview with Phil Donahue
Note: This interview appeared in the September 2002 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
Oprah: Over the years, you've probably heard me say that I wouldn't have my career as I know it if it weren't for you. Did you know you were paving the way for a black woman?
Phil: I have to be honest—we were so busy trying to keep the feather in the air that the last thing we worried about was other people's careers. We started locally in Dayton with two cameras and no stars—we could only afford to fly in two guests a week. We had no couches, no announcers, no band and folding chairs, no jokes. I wasn't saying, "Come on down!" We knew we were visually dull, so we had to go to issues—that's what made us alive.
Oprah: You invented the one-topic format while doing what I believe all social justice does: allow people to see that they aren't alone.
Phil: The show became a place where women discussed issues that didn't naturally come up, and certainly not in mixed company. Much of what we talked about on the air is what women had been talking about in ladies' rooms.
Oprah: It was on your show that I first heard anyone discuss water retention from the pill!
Phil: I'd be sitting there with a doctor, and a woman would call in about an itch! I didn't want to breathe—I was waiting for it to be over. It's difficult to appreciate how antiseptic the daytime schedule was then. There were the soaps and game shows and Monty Hall giving away $5,000 to a woman dressed like a chicken-salad sandwich. And there I was, next to an ob-gyn, with women talking about bloating. We finally had to do a show called "Doctors Who Hate Donahue," because for the first time, women were challenging their physicians.
Oprah: You were the first to recognize that women had concerns that no one else in television acknowledged. Was that conscious?
Phil: I'd like you to think I'm a visionary, but no. The people around me who were making decisions about who we had on the show were women. It was a woman's idea to do a show about male strippers. Before that show, I thought, "Where are we gonna put their microphones?" I was honestly afraid, as you might expect most men would be. I stood in the audience, and these guys who probably did six hours in the gym every day came out. The audience went bonkers. Your grandmother screamed, your baby sister screamed, your mother screamed. They screamed with nervousness, with delight, with a feeling of naughtiness. I started complaining less about the ideas women brought me. When we looked up, we discovered we were doing something nobody else was, all because we had no stars.
Oprah: Because you couldn't get Phyllis Diller.
Phil: Right. We once had on the guy from Dayton who invented the pop-top beer can. At the time, there was a crisis because people were stepping on the pop-tops on beaches, so he had to go back to the drawing board.
Oprah: And that was one of your big interviews?
Phil: For a whole hour! How the hell did I do it? I did have on the Smothers Brothers once, right in the middle of their CBS controversy [over anti–Vietnam War jokes on their variety show]. A woman called in and asked Tom Smothers, "Do you believe in God?" and he said, "Yeah, but I don't know if he's still doin' such a good job."
Oprah: Wasn't your first show about atheism?
Phil: Yes—with [late atheism activist] Madalyn Murray O'Hair, whom I'd had on my radio show [Conversation Piece, which ran from 1963 to 1967]. In those days, I was learning what people were really interested in. That's also when I discovered gynecology.
Oprah: And what mattered to women.
Phil: Right. During my first year on TV, I realized how important the issues Dr. Phil McGraw talks about today were to our viewers, even back in 1968. A woman might say on the air, "My husband doesn't kiss me anymore," and the phone lines would sizzle. Everybody wanted in on it. People would say things like "Why does my husband always have to drive?" or "Every night I say to my husband, 'I love you,' and from the other side of the mattress I hear, 'Ditto.'" We also covered social issues, which I'd done on radio, too. On "Conversation Piece" we'd had Malcolm X and [then U.S. attorney general] Bobby Kennedy as guests, but only because they didn't have to come to Dayton. I arranged with the phone company to push two buttons and connect my caller to Bobby Kennedy in his office. So the Dayton housewife got to talk to Bobby and to Malcolm directly.
Oprah: Did the Dayton housewife know who Malcolm was?
Phil: Yes. And by the time I had a TV show, she was even more aware of the unrest in this country. During our first full year on the air, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were killed.
Oprah: Not to mention what was happening in the women's movement.
Phil: In 1967 your boss could look down your dress and there was nothing you could do about it.
Oprah: Your boss could even say, "I like your boobs," and there was still nothing you could do. Were you a natural feminist?
Phil: My God, no. After 16 years of Catholic education followed by [the University of] Notre Dame, this was essentially the idea I had: Find a good woman and marry her.
Oprah: And what was your definition of a good woman?
Phil: Cookies and Betty Crocker. Women on the show would say, "Children in this culture get too much mother and not enough father," and I remember the cold wind coming at me. That was certainly true in my house.
Oprah: In your first marriage, were you the traditional workaholic guy who had traditional expectations of your wife?
Phil: Sure. And I was very ambitious. In the early days of the show, I knew we couldn't be ponderous—we had to enter screaming. We had all the nervousness that, in the long run, ensured we didn't get too self-conscious. On the show with Madalyn, we burned the town down immediately—kaboom! Then I put a gay guy on in 1968—a real, live homosexual sitting right next to me. I was terrified.
Oprah: You were terrified?
Phil: Yes. I'm from Notre Dame. And believe me, the one thing you didn't want to be doing at Notre Dame was hangin' with gay people. Sure enough, during that show, the third caller said, "Birds of a feather...." Then another caller said to the guest, "How does Phil look to you?" The guy said, "That's an irrelevant question."
Oprah: I would love to see that tape!
Phil: If you don't understand those feelings, then you don't understand homophobia. There's a reason for the closet. As the years went by after that show, I got involved in gay politics. And through my activism, I began to realize what it must be like to be born, to live, and to die in the closet. I can't even imagine it. Gayness is not a moral issue, yet no institution on earth has promoted homophobia more than the church. That's what's so ironic about the scandal in the Catholic Church. Here you have the most homophobic institution in the world with the largest closet of homosexuals.
Oprah: You spoke out not only on gay rights but on civil rights. Wasn't Jesse Jackson on your show more than anyone?
Phil: I wanted to exploit the wonderful platform I had. I didn't want to do people favors to the point where everybody looked soppy and we'd die of bad ratings—but we didn't have to: Jesse drew a big crowd. All those shows about issues had a great audience. Muhammad Ali is a good example. A woman in the front row said to him, "Why are you always throwing your blackness at us?" He said, "Why are you always throwing your whiteness at me? Take that white Jesus off the wall. I know a lot of black women who are prettier than these white Miss Americas. And how come devil's food cake is black and angel food cake is white?" Ali was returning every serve. It was fabulous! I was running around the audience like a madman because I couldn't get to people fast enough. Nobody was doing this on TV, and certainly not in the daytime. It was a wonderful odyssey that I'd wish on anybody.
Oprah: You got to grow up with yourself.
Phil: I did. I began to ask myself, "Who am I as a father? Who am I as a citizen? Who am I as a Christian? How have I been influenced?" I used to give a speech about growing up racist—now I was learning new things from people like Ali and Malcolm X. Doing the show was like getting a PhD. It wasn't that I was smarter than the guy who'd joined the sales program at Sears, but if I'd done that, I wouldn't have met Betty Friedan, Bobby Seale, Jerry Rubin, Jane Fonda, Ayn Rand. It was an education not available in any university.
Oprah: When you aired controversial shows, were more people pleased than outraged?
Phil: If you look up outrage in the dictionary, there's a picture of me. We once even filmed an abortion—a side shot of a woman in stirrups, the physician dilating the cervix, everything. You heard the machine. You saw the birth matter in a jar. We filmed it. Then we called the Archdiocese of Chicago, the pro-life people, and the pro-choice people, sat them in a room, and played the tape before going anywhere near the air with it. When I walked into the room after they'd seen it, half the people were crying. The major grievance of the pro-life and Catholic Church folks was that the tape made abortion look easy. I said, "Well, that's the procedure—15 minutes." Their fear was that if we aired this, everybody would run out and get abortions. I said, "Look, this issue is splitting families. It's at the center of America's agenda." Somehow, we got to air that. The highest percentage of stations in the history of Donahue did not show it, yet significant numbers did. Today, you'd never get that on television.
Oprah: After 29 years, were you sad to leave the show?
Phil: I was anxious to walk. We'd lost our venue at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York [where the show had moved in 1985]. I would tell anyone doing a show today to get 30 Rock. People from all over the world get off the plane and go there. We had smart, multiracial, international studio audiences—young people, daughters, mothers. We didn't have to pull teeth to get their participation. It was the biggest natural high I could have. But then we moved to the New Yorker Hotel, across from Madison Square Garden, which was the opposite. I remember having [multimillionaire financial publisher] Steve Forbes on, talking about the gold standard. I looked around the audience and saw this guy sitting there with an earring in his nose, and I knew he didn't come to see Steve Forbes. I could have been there four hours, and this guy wasn't going to get up and say a thing. So the discouragement set in.
Phil (continued): I used to do reunion shows—a woman's high school boyfriend would come out and the two would hug. It was fabulous voyeurism. About five years ago, I'm watching Jenny Jones—"One-Night Stand Reunions." First guest comes out, and she looks like Jennifer Connelly. She says, "We were in a bar having a drink and I noticed his eyes, and pretty soon, we're in the motel. It was the most passionate, intimate, exciting night I've had in my life." The audience goes, "Oooh!" By now, I'm canceling appointments to watch this, and Jenny Jones says, "Would you like to meet him?" The audience says, "Yeah!" I thought, "Me too." So of course I have to wait for the commercial, and when they introduce this guy, he's 6 foot 4, he's gorgeous—and he's black. The audience goes, "Whoooa!" And I thought, "Well, shit—we never thought of that!" We've come a long way from the guy who comes from the Rotary Club to meet Gertrude who he danced with in 1948.
Oprah: You started all of this!
Phil: If that's what you think, I'm proud. What I'm most proud of is that we involved the audience more than anybody else in the game. People who owned the airwaves got to actually use them in this wild thing called democracy. Hooray for us.
Oprah: But don't you think some of the talk shows have gone too far? Just the other day, I was flipping through the channels and saw that people were naked on Jerry Springer.
Phil: I've been very good about trying not to sound like the old guy who says, "In my day, we'd never do that." We were naughty, too.
Oprah: I've been naughty, but some of the shows have crossed over into a whole different territory.
Phil: They probably have. I don't think it's an overstatement to suggest that we have a culture in decay. The canary in the mine now is public education. We have way too many people either not finishing high school, or when they do...
Oprah: Knowing nothing.
Phil: Employers will tell you that we have high school graduates without fundamental skills. What's happening on television is a reflection of our culture. And instead of wringing our hands and breathing heavy and saying, "Ain't it awful?" I think we ought to try to do something. We're like an experiment being set up by a sociology class. If you want to know about America's culture in the last half of the 20th century, watch some of these programs.
Oprah: There's a level of vulgarity on TV now that didn't exist before.
Phil: I was never exposed to this material when I was an adolescent and started having "impure thoughts." I don't know how I'd handle the imagery that's available today.
Oprah: When you left TV [in 1996], you said you didn't know what you'd do next. I thought, "Boy, that's brave." On the Monday after your last show, I remember saying to myself, "I wonder what Phil is doing today."
Phil: I went from being the leader of my talk show to being the leader of my boat. Sailing totally focuses my mind. I learned how to pilot a 56-footer, which is bigger than any boat my father ever had—though when I go to the marina where all the rock stars keep their boats, it's the smallest. I don't know how the hell Columbus found this place. I've got satellites, radar, everything. I've been to Newfoundland, New Brunswick, all along the coast of Maine, from the East Coast down to the Bahamas and as far as Key West. I've discovered the Intracoastal Waterway. It's fabulous.
Oprah: Was that enough to fill you up after being in the heat every day?
Phil: Wherever I go in the boat, people are waving at me and I'm in charge. It's important to know how anxious I was to get off the show. I never wanted to be too highbrow for our sponsors—my job was to draw a crowd, and you can't do that playing organ music—but during one of the last months of the show, we booked a guy who could tell you what's wrong with your brain by feeling your feet. I'm lying there on this table at the New Yorker Hotel, and this guy's feeling my feet. I'm thinking, "Oh please, God." I'm saying to myself, "Get out of here. Go away. Just run." Before the days of Jerry Springer [which began airing in 1991], we could actually do a whole show on Bob Dole. We'd put all the lines on hold so people couldn't get through early. When we'd release the phones, it was boom, boom, boom.
Oprah: You invented the phrase, "Is the caller there?" Long before I had a show, I watched you a lot—but I stopped watching when I heard myself say, "Is the caller there?" I thought, I've got to reduce my Phil intake!
Phil: Callers had the bravery of anonymity. Kids who were being abused even called. We got real testimony. Viewers could hear the tears and feel the pain. It was a feature of our show that kept us alive.
Oprah: Have there been moments when you've wished you had a forum again?
Phil: Since September 11, I've been riveted by TV. I'm fascinated by the media response. I'm fascinated by John Ashcroft. And I'm taken by the language that is used: "Wipe 'em out, take 'em down...drain the swamp...win...with us or against us." I've allowed myself to say aloud that I don't know that the memory of those who died at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania is honored by the most powerful nation on earth killing more innocent people. Is the bombing really going to make us safer?
Phil (continued): And 40 years from now, will my grandchildren be waking up wondering what color the alert for the day is? I'm also very angry. One of the insidious features of terrorism is that the 19 guys who did this are dead—so we don't even have the satisfaction, imperfect as it may be, of dragging them to trial. I want to punch somebody out myself. But where is dissent? And who gets shushed? We're in a time when this fabulous thing called the Constitution is most needed. Over the years, we've sent millions of young people to war, and so many have died in foreign countries defending our way of life. And now our way of life is at risk, not so much from these foreign enemies but from our own cabinet members who just can't wait to listen in on our attorney-client conversations, check our e-mail, knock our doors down—freeze! The most ominous thing is an administration with an 80 percent approval rating. You want to keep real close scrutiny on these people, regardless of party. When they're up in the 80s, it's easy for them to swagger, and that's when dissent can be silenced. The whole point of the Constitution was to keep that from happening.
Oprah: During the first show I taped after September 11, a woman in the audience had the courage to say that we should think before we go to war.
Phil: Did she get booed?
Oprah: Literally. After we did the show called "Is War the Only Answer?" I thought, "Can't you even ask the question without people attacking you?"
Phil: That gets a little easier as we get further from the event.
Oprah: For years people have speculated about whether you have political aspirations. Do you?
Phil: I really don't.
Oprah: What made you campaign for Ralph Nader?
Phil: I believe him. Corporate campaign cash is controlling the democratic process. Corporations want to ensure that there are only two candidates to put their money on. Then they're in a win-win situation. I recently said, "For those of you who thought of us as spoilers and complainers and exaggerators, we have one word for you: Enron." It's unbelievable the control that company had.
Oprah: Some said your support for Nader was undemocratic.
Phil: [Harvard law professor] Alan Dershowitz said that—and I called him on it. Kids stood in the rain and the heat in the Southwest, on street corners, getting petitions to put Ralph on the ballot in spite of all the barriers. You should try to run for president! It's impossible. Incumbency is king. Ralph's name got on the ballot in 44 states. He never took a dime more than was allowed by the Federal Election Commission. Obeyed all the laws, reported everything. And we're undemocratic? Campaigning for Ralph was an interesting buzz for me. I had never been able to go out and do that. I felt like a real American. I was pitching for somebody I believed in. I first met him back in the sixties—he was a guest on the show. I was very proud to stand next to him, but I figured it was the end of my broadcasting career. After what I've said about how corporate power has taken away the rights of citizens, I never thought I'd be hired by a corporation.
Oprah: But you're back. When did you get the call from MSNBC—after you were on TV challenging [conservative talk-show host] Bill O'Reilly last October?
Phil: Around then. I saw O'Reilly stepping all over progressive ideas and people who wanted to say, "Wait a minute, maybe we should think before we get into a war. We got attacked by 19 guys with box cutters, and we're responding how?" We seem to have no patience for examining ourselves and asking questions; you get accused of blaming the victim. But that has effectively silenced dissent, which is needed now more than ever.
Oprah: If 9/11 hadn't happened, would you have wanted to come back?
Phil: I don't know—that was certainly a triggering event. I feel a responsibility to millions of people who are wondering where America should go from here. They're worried about the safety of their children, about how much our lives will change. This country is the most wonderful experiment in the history of civilization. No other nation has the instruments to protect an individual against the power of the state.
One of the Supreme Court stories I love is about Jehovah's Witness kids who wouldn't salute the flag in the 1940s. It was against their religion because they pay homage to no one except God. So there were schoolchildren in a classroom who wouldn't pledge. People threw stones at these kids and even burned down a Kingdom Hall in Kennebunk, Maine. The Supreme Court said they had to salute the flag. Three years later, the Court reversed itself—but in those three years, thousands of Jehovah's Witnesses were brutally beaten. In the final Supreme Court decision, Justice Robert Jackson said, "If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion...." Majority ruled. Then nine old guys looked down over that mahogany bench and said to those Jehovah's Witness children: You obey your parents. That makes me a proud American.
Now we've got people with Jesus and the Ten Commandments on the wall, and they have absolutely no idea about the reason for separation of church and state. The separation makes religion stronger! You don't want the state telling your preacher what to say. You don't want some teacher in a public school fooling with your child's mind. Now that we have so many people who think they know what's good for us, we're beginning to see the wisdom of the framers. I can't wait to talk about these issues on the air.
Oprah: Will it matter to you if people don't like the show?
Phil: I'm just like everyone—I want to be loved. But it's important to see the enormous force that's marshaled against anyone who dares speak about certain issues. I once did a priest pedophilia show on St. Patrick's Day, and a priest called in and said, "How am I supposed to work on a playground with children?" When I was a kid, we used to have a sin called giving scandal, which meant criticizing the church. And that's exactly how we got where we are now.
Oprah: Do you worry about the show not working?
Phil: Sure I do, but a little worry got me this far.
Oprah: What is the show's format?
Phil: We're coming off the front page—live, five nights a week at 8 P.M. [EST]. And you know that means booking guests at five and six o'clock. There's no audience, but we're taking phone calls.
Oprah: Were you excited when you first got the call from MSNBC?
Phil: My first thought was, "Do I really want to be a player?" I didn't even have an agent.
Oprah: Did you think that after 29 years on Donahue you were played out?
Phil: That, and I'm 66. The Philadelphia Inquirer said, "He's Paleozoic!" But shock, shock, shock—here I am. Over a year ago, I was asked if I'd be interested in doing a show with Newt Gingrich. I said, "Why do I have to have balance? Alan Keyes doesn't have balance. And O'Reilly's all by himself." Conservatives criticize government, liberals criticize business—that's why television managers and civic business leaders are not altogether welcoming of progressives and liberals. But it's a shame. There's no other democracy on earth that doesn't have a political party with a progressive agenda. In the last presidential election, we had two candidates who essentially said almost the same thing and avoided all the painful, third-rail issues like the drug war and how we're executing retarded teenagers. And we have conservatives supporting the idea that all women who are pregnant shall remain pregnant by order of the state. What kind of country do they want? And who's going to enforce this law? How many cops are they going to hire? Are they gonna knock down hotel rooms to see who's having an abortion? They're gonna walk in to find their baby sisters, their mothers, their girlfriends, their daughters.
Oprah: The bottom line is that we need you, Phil, because we need to be challenged by the voice of dissent. What do your children think of your return?
Phil: They're surprised. But they've also said, "Go get 'em, Pop." I'm not 29 anymore, my wife isn't pregnant, I'm not trying to raise kids, I don't have a mortgage—so it takes less courage for me to speak up. Maybe I'll get to talk about things like why this administration is so secretive. Whatever the framers meant, this wasn't it. I'm an American, just like you, and I am impressed with the Bill of Rights. I believe a woman's home should be her castle. I believe that the separation of church and state makes both the church and the state stronger. And I believe in the privilege of conversations between attorneys and clients. People can yell at me, they can criticize me, they can call me names. But there's one thing they can't do: They can't take away my flag.