It’s half past three on a Thursday afternoon, and Phil Donahue is talking the topic of the day: politics.
The original talk show king is on fire as he rips apart the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying the United States has become a “warrior nation.” Minutes later he’s saying the Republican Party is in a “death spiral” and mocking some White House hopefuls and their views on birth control: “I can’t take my eyes off these Republicans. This is the greatest reality show in the history of presidential politics. An aspirin between your knees? It’s unbelievable what’s going on out there.”
The chat at the D.C. Irish pub — where a tie-less Donahue sips only a glass of water — is a brief stop on the hectic campaign trail. The vocal Democrat, who campaigned for the Green Party’s Ralph Nader in 2000, is in Washington to headline a fundraiser for congressional candidate Norman Solomon.
The author and anti-war activist faces a tough primary battle in northern California’s redrawn district against a field of at least seven fellow Democrats for the seat of retiring Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.). Solomon’s opponents in the district (which Donahue calls “probably the bluest place in the country”) include State Assemblyman Jared Huffman and businesswoman Stacey Lawson.
The way Donahue tells it, it didn’t take much to convince him to lend his support to Solomon’s grassroots campaign: “I have some pretty strong political views that don’t always serve me well on the air. But Norman is — I think he’s right on all the issues. He and I share the same attitude about how we went to war, how it’s unconstitutional, and how easy it is, which is the casualty of war.”
Solomon, a Silver Spring, Md., native and founder of the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, sits across the four-top at The Dubliner wearing a dark suit and pin that reads “99%” and says, “Phil and I share a deep faith in democracy — which sounds kind of hokey — but that’s our only hope.”
Given his past TV stardom, flying across the country to shake hands at diners and theaters along the Golden State’s northern coast might not sound like fun. But at 76, Donahue says he’s having the time of his life: “Now that I’m a free bird, I’m not on the air anymore, I want to get out there. I enjoy this very much.”
Nor is the self-described “political animal” shy when it comes to his opinion of President Obama: “I’m very disappointed that he hasn’t been more forthcoming in terminating this massive blunder called Iraq and Afghanistan.”
While he also decries the use of drones, saying, “We’ve killed children. We’ve also killed an American citizen on Obama’s watch,” Donahue and Solomon both say they support the president’s reelection campaign.
Donahue reveals that before signing with MSNBC in 2002, Roger Ailes, the head of Fox News Channel, called and toyed with the idea of pairing him with the similarly white-haired former Republican House Speaker, Newt Gingrich: “I think he got the hair and thought, ‘Well, this is neat.’ Honestly I think that’s one of the things that motivated him. And I passed.”
The MSNBC gig didn’t last long. Donahue claims his vocal opposition to the Iraq invasion played a part in the show’s cancellation. “When you ramp up for war, you’re supposed to shut up. At a time when you need free speech the most, you’re told to sit down.” MSNBC cited low ratings in canning “Donahue” after less than a year.
The Emmy Award winner, who spent the next few years pouring his efforts into “Body of War,” his Oscar-nominated documentary about a military veteran, says he wouldn’t want to do a daily show, though he hasn’t ruled out a return to the small screen: “I would like to do something thoughtful and that didn’t require a lot of tap dancing, which is what you have to do to stay alive in television … but I’d like to do something special, and maybe that wasn’t desperate for ratings — do something important.”
He pauses before conceding, “But there aren’t that many opportunities, and I’m older than everybody. That’s a problem.”
Donahue lives in New York with wife, Marlo Thomas. He jokes that the “That Girl” star, who was ready to “throw him under the bus” when he campaigned alongside Nader in 2000, “hasn’t thrown me out of bed” this time around.
Donahue admits with a smile, “I have a lot of opinions. I don’t have the power I used to. I don’t have the platform I used to. This is different. In many ways it has its own excitement that’s not available anywhere else, and I’m not ashamed of that.”