Phil Donahue on his comeback show -- The always controversial talk show host returns to the tube, with his sense of outrage intact
Phil Donahue, The Phil Donahue Show
Credit: Phil Donahue Photograph by Mark Peterson/Corbis SABA

Phil Donahue says that if they hadn’t used the title for some guy who’s leaving MSNBC, he’d call his new hot-news-topic show ”Phil Donahue Is Making Sense” instead of ”Donahue.” Ask him whether he’ll have a certain controversial hip-hopper on, and the 66-year-old host says, ”Eminem? Sure!” and then ticks off Em’s sins. ”Promoting homophobia, influencing the minds of young people in the age of gay-bashing — sure [I’d have him on]. He’s important culturally.” Hold up: Donahue, winner of 20 Emmys, the granddaddy of daytime TV, is hip to Eminem? ”Hey,” he laughs, ”I’m not sure who’s who out there, but Eminem I know about. I’ve just started getting into the Dixie Chicks.”

Chatting with Donahue is — to steal a phrase from his nightly 8 p.m. competition at the Fox News Channel, Bill O’Reilly — to enter a no-spin zone. While he talks just as much as O’Reilly does about being ”fair,” Donahue is equally incapable of leaving his own agenda out of his conversation. And he and O’Reilly could not be further apart on the political spectrum. Don’t get him started about the recent uproar over the court ruling against the phrase ”under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. ”Can a Muslim kid say ‘one nation under Allah’? Ask Jerry Falwell, he’s gonna say no.” (He’s having an imaginary debate with Falwell here.) ”’Oh, so it’s [got to be] your god, not somebody else’s?”’

In his 1970s prime, Donahue really mixed it up. One day he’d don a skirt and do a show about cross-dressers; the next, he’d have Jane Fonda on and ask point-blank, ”Did you call [President] Nixon a murderer?” (Let the record show: She waffled.)

Over the years, he took heat for confronting politicians and pushing progressive causes such as AIDS education and feminism. In 1992, he asked then-governor Bill Clinton whether he’d ever separated from his wife, Hillary. A steamed Clinton shot back, ”You are responsible for the cynicism in this country.”

Donahue also pioneered the fine art of losing advertisers. ”Bob Evans — you know, the farm sausage/restaurant guy? [He] wrote a letter to the station manager when we were [a local show] in Dayton [Ohio], after the Jane Fonda show, and said, ‘I will not sponsor any program that tears down America.’ I wonder how many are out there feeling that way today. Sanitize the news, I guess they mean. ‘Don’t tell me what’s painful. Don’t talk about the FBI, the CIA; don’t talk about airport security.”’ All of which you’ll do on your show? He nods his silvery head vigorously.

Donahue won’t comment on time-period competition like CNN’s Connie Chung or about denting ”The O’Reilly Factor”’s cable-news dominance. All he’ll say is that he hopes to be around for the 2004 presidential race and that ”I hope we have a campaign that’s not so bland.” (Can you guess that he stumped for Nader last time around?)

But let’s try steering him back to pop culture. Tom Cruise? ”Scientology — can you imagine, they named it a [legal] church?” He extols ”a wonderful organization called Americans United for the Separation of Church and State,” and praises the ”wonderful people trying to expose evolutionary theory to kids. I think God is more expressed in Darwinian scholarship than in the [biblical story of the] Garden of Eden.” That ringing sound you hear may be Bob Evans calling, and I don’t think it’s to invite Phil over for sausage and gravy.