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So What Do You Do, Phil Donahue?

The daytime television innovator discusses his anti-war documentary and his future on the small screen

By Chandra Niles Folsom - June 6, 2007
donahue_052907.jpg In 1967, a brash young talk show host named Phil Donahue debuted on the small screen with a truly revolutionary idea -- a television program aimed at thinking women. With the 60s counter-culture in full swing, Donahue was the right man at the right time. His progressive politics, passion, and dedication to audience participation made him a daytime mainstay until tabloid talk knocked him off the air in 1996. Donahue returned to television briefly in 2002, but his decidedly anti-war stance made MSNBC execs nervous, and his debate program was unceremoniously dropped seven months later.

Now, with most Americans critical of the War in Iraq, Donahue is taking his fervent anti-war views to the silver screen. The documentary Body of War, Donahue's first film, tells the story of Tomas Young -- a 25-year-old whose gunshot-wound left him paralyzed from the chest down. He signed up the day after 9/11.

Name: Phil Donahue
Position: Co-director/ executive producer, Body of War
Resume: The Phil Donahue Show's 29 years on the air (1967-1996) invented modern talk show television. Donahue's progressive approach to the major political and social debates of our time earned Donahue 20 Daytime Emmy Awards and a 1993 induction into the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame. In 2002, Donohue returned to television for a brief stint as the host of the MSNBC program, Donahue. Body of War is his first film.
Birthdate: December 21, 1935
Hometown: Westport, Connecticut
Education: BA in business administration, University of Notre Dame
Marital status: Married to Marlo Thomas
Last book(s) read: War Made Easy by Norman Solomon, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges
First section of the Sunday paper: Front page and the editorial section
Favorite TV show: C-SPAN
Most interesting media story right now: "The congressional effort to re-examine the October 2002 war resolution [and] the failure of the Democratic party to take the ball all the way."
Guilty Pleasure: Taking family and friends on boat rides to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island while playing them Kate Smith's "God Bless America" and Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York." ("I'm just a schmaltzy guy.")

How did this documentary come about?
I was in Washington, visiting my old pal Ralph Nader, and while we were chatting, he said a mother at Walter Reed asked to see him and wondered if I wanted to go. I said 'yeah,' and off we went. I met this young man, learned that he had been shot and was paralyzed from the chest down, and thought, "Well I can't just pat this kid on the head and never see him again -- what can I do?" I thought, "Let's see if we can put a documentary together because I'd really like people to see his story."

Who is Tomas Young? Why did his story move you?
Tomas Young is from the heartland -- a kid from Kansas City. He signed up on 9/12 -- wanted to go and fight the enemy. After Fort Hood, he wanted to know why he was being sent to Iraq instead of Afghanistan. Very shortly after he arrived in Baghdad he was in the back of a five-ton truck with about 28 other guys and was shot from above like a fish in a barrel. He took the bullet in his shoulder and it went down and exited his spine at the T-4 area. Now he can't walk, all his bodily functions have been totally altered -- he has to be catheterized five times a day. Most of us see someone in a wheelchair and think, "Poor lad can't walk," but there are other things he can't do. Tomas is involved with Iraq Veterans Against the War. If he supported the war, that's what the film would have been about. But he's not, and the film makes no bones about it -- this is an anti-Iraq war film. By the way, his younger brother is in Iraq, so his mother has kissed two boys goodbye and one came home totally altered. She prays every day and checks for the latest war dead.

Is the film feature length? Where do you hope to show it?
Well, it's a documentary -- I think it would be misleading to call it a feature. We're still in the editing process but are hoping the film will be about an hour and 45 minutes. I don't know where it will be shown -- I've never done this before. Will it be good enough for the 'plexes and is that the best way to go? I don't know.

What happened at MSNBC?
I was back on for a while as MSNBC and had a very short, unhappy life there because I was against the war. A memo was leaked to the press from the NBC management team that Donahue is not such a good idea up against all the competition waving the flag, and that my anti-war voice would not be welcome when all the other networks were supporting the war.

You are credited with being the first to publicly take on Bill O'Reilly -- true?
Yeah (laughs) I was a guest on his show. You can probably still watch -- it's been flying around the Internet for a while now.

Most Americans seem to be in agreement with you about the war now. Maybe the time is right for you to go back on the air?
I'm not sure the door would ever be open for me again but I'm happy to do whatever I can on my own, with my own money, to be a dissenting voice. I want people to see this film and to meet a patriot -- one who fought for our right to dissent. There's no dissent, there's no democracy, and this Administration has likened dissent to some kind of treasonous activity.

"Who can possibly say this war has made us safer? It totally undermines the American Constitution."

You said you used your own money for this film. Where will the profits go?
I will take no profits from this film if there are any. My hope is that there will be some income generated from the film for Tomas. He will get any profits we make. He is at the center of this story -- a truly American story and I was very lucky to meet him.

You recently spoke at Fairfield University?
Yes -- Professor Eliasoph invited me. I told him I'm just working on this documentary and he said I should come talk about why I'm against the war.

Why are you against the war?
I believe it's unconstitutional, unaffordable and was avoidable. It was a total mistake -- no American life is worth any official saving face. This war was called by a bunch of swaggering people who would never send their children to fight the war they are sending other people's children to fight. It's a war without provocation based on false information. Who can possibly say this war has made us safer? It totally undermines the American Constitution. Some people say they are proud to be an American and have a Constitution but they clearly don't believe it. We have lost our knowledge of and respect for the Constitution and vision of the framers. What does it mean to be an American if you turn your back on the Bill of Rights? I'm afraid if you put the Bill of Rights to a vote today, it would lose.

Because of this administration?
This is the most secretive Administration ever -- we can't even show our flag draped coffins. Those who do return often have heinous injuries and their medical benefits get cut! This film tells the story about whom we have put in harms way. The next time someone wants to land on an aircraft carrier, I want him to meet Tomas Young -- the real patriot. I want people to see his pain and learn how he copes with the reality of his own condition. This is no Sound of Music; it's a very grim story but a truly American story. If anyone deserves to be heard, it's Tomas Young -- he has paid the price and we have a responsibility to listen to him.

* Reprinted with permission from Meadow's Country Capitalist, a supplement of Weston magazine

[Chandra Niles Folsom is a freelance journalist. She co-authored Women's Glasnost and edited the soon-to-be-released Terrorist Junction. Her commissioned screenplay, American Jihad, has just completed film production.]

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