Phil Donahue's vindication: Media icon unloads on Fox, Cheney and what happened at MSNBC

Legendary TV host was fired for opposing Iraq war. Here's how he feels seeing the return of those who got it wrong

Published July 10, 2014 9:30PM (EDT)

Phil Donahue    (Reuters/Danny Moloshok)
Phil Donahue (Reuters/Danny Moloshok)

As has been well-documented, and will hopefully long be taught in journalism schools nationwide, the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was not the American mainstream media's finest hour. There are plenty of obvious examples — Judith Miller's reporting for the New York Times,  Jeffrey Goldberg's stuff for the New Yorker, almost everything Peter Beinart did at the New Republic — but perhaps the incident that best encapsulates the hysterical and illiberal atmosphere of the time is the way MSNBC treated Phil Donahue.

The talk-show legend was, at the time, one of the few voices in the mainstream standing against the march to war. He invited antiwar voices onto his show. He questioned the government's argument for why war was necessary. He cautioned against rushing into an undertaking as grave, monumental and consequential as war. He was getting fine ratings. But he made Chris Matthews — at the time a huge Bush booster — uncomfortable, and network executives worried they'd look bad unless they, too, were "waving the flag at every opportunity." So Donahue was fired. And then the U.S. went to war. And we all know how that went.

More than a decade later, Iraq is still in chaos — and the media is still giving ample airtime to the very people who created and perpetuated the jingoistic, authoritarian environment that made the suits at MSNBC so very concerned about looking out of step. But while the folks at the networks busied themselves with broadcasting Bill Kristol's latest insights, Salon figured we'd give Donahue a call and ask him his thoughts about Iraq, the media and the current state of American politics. Our conversation is below, and has been edited for clarity and length.

First of all, what are you up to nowadays?

Well, as you may know, I produced a documentary. It’s an anti-Iraq War documentary. It’s titled “Body of War,” and it is available on Netflix. The film did very well in festivals. People’s Choice at the Toronto International Film Festival, for example, and we also did well in many other places. The documentary has played in quite a few places around the country. Alas, we’ve sold no popcorn, and no distributor would take it still. Iraq docs were falling off the marquee. It’s not "a take your girl to the movie" movie.

Have you been following the coverage of ISIS/ISIL's activities in Iraq?

Oh yes. I paid a lot of attention. I’m very curious about — I used to be [in the media], so it’s sort of like having a window onto the floor of the company you used to work for, and I’m very interested in it.

A lot of people — not just on the left, but those in general who either did not support the war from the beginning or turned on it early — were upset to see a lot of the most vocal, prominent and unrepentant supporters of the invasion being treated as experts, and resuming their role as pundits and talking heads. Did you share that frustration?

Yes. Oh, sure. How can you not, seeing Dick Cheney instruct us on foreign policy?

One of the things I don’t think has had enough attention [is that] every major metropolitan newspaper in this country supported the invasion of Iraq. Now, if there’s a major metropolitan newspaper in this country that condemned the invasion that I don’t know about, I’m happy to hear from them, and I will apologize, personally. Seventy-seven United States senators voted for the war. Hillary voted for the war, John Kerry voted for the war, Chuck Hagel voted for the war, and there were others; only 23 senators voted no. Of the 23, only one was a Republican — Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, and he lost his seat at the next election. (Thank God the voters of Rhode Island were good enough to elect him governor the following year.)

The war, which was ... a massive blunder, never came up during the presidential contest in either '08 or '12. It never came up. The closest it came to the surface was Ron Paul, who did say on the stump, “Why are we invading all these countries? What are we doing?” As you see in my film, the actual debate on the floor of the House and the Senate, of the Iraq War resolution, which unconstitutionally gave Bush permission to invade, it wasn’t in any way obedient to Article I, Section 8 [of the Constitution], which states only Congress can declare war. Congress did not declare war. Congress did not want the job. It’s a third rail issue; if they’re wrong then that could be it. So they, hands over their eyes, handed the president a piece of paper which gives him permission if he thinks he should, and if it doesn’t work, they’re able to say, "Well, he said, he thought, he told us …"

I’d very much like you to see the behavior of the congressmen [in my film]. They were summoned to the White House by WHIG, White House Iraq Group. This is a Karl Rove committee that included the advertising warriors who named our invasion “Shock and Awe,” and “Rolling Thunder,” like video games. And they gave them their talking points: “A smoking gun will become a mushroom cloud”; “The longer we wait, the more dangerous he becomes"; “Saddam has more weapons of mass destruction than Hitler ever had”; “I see Hitler in Saddam Hussein.” And they read this, they’re looking down at the piece of paper, in what was at most a shell debate, that led to the deaths of over 4,500 service people, men and women both, not to mention how many injuries, we’re not even sure, we’re not even sure how many Iraqis are dead, and the refugees are in the millions.

This is unbelievable. You’ve got to see this debate. It’s truly a very instructive piece on what you can do if you scare the people. George Bush took this nation, the mainstream media included, and led it right into this war. It was an amazingly executed, brilliantly executed, plan. The politics of fear. And so when I see Cheney, my god, Americans got a lot out of trying, we haven’t won a war, and we’re spending $2 billion a day on things that go "boom." We have become a warrior nation. We have no respect for diplomacy. We have to be tough, and we don’t talk to people we don’t like. We don’t talk to Ahmadinejad; Putin talks to Ahmadinejad. We didn’t talk to Putin; Putin talked to us. And we’re beginning to show an unbecoming insecurity. We’re stomping around: "Exceptionalism! Exceptionalism!" Well, easy, big fella; it would be better if someone from another country said we were exceptional.

Do you think if the war had been debated more sincerely, and its presentation to the public hadn't been so sanitized, folks like Cheney would have a harder time reemerging as they have?

Well, let's understand that he’s reemerging on Fox, right? I mean, I haven’t researched this, has he been on any of the major networks? Has he been on ABC? He’s not been on "Meet the Press," has he? I don’t know.

I don’t know for sure whether he has, but I do know if it wasn’t him it might have been Dan Senor, or Paul Wolfowitz or Richard Perle —

I haven’t seen Richard Perle ... I mean, he don’t get around much anymore.

There was actually a piece recently featuring him.

Really? Who did it?

It was the National Journal, and he was the main source. It was an article about how the neocons are back to promoting Ahmad Chalabi.

I didn’t see that today, but I know Chalabi is resurfacing. Well, y'know, [the Iraq War proponents are] in the [TV booker's] rolodex, and it’s about the "get." And the get value rises with proximity to the biggest get, and that’s the president. And so we still have Cheney, with the vice president identification historically, and so he becomes valuable. Media elite cover media power. That’s why you won’t see Amy Goodman on "Meet the Press." That’s why people like Dennis Kucinich are marginalized. The liberal is "the political vision that dare not speak its name," as Oscar Wilde said. It’s like, we’ve been so marginalized that we don’t call ourselves liberals anymore, we’re "progressives" now. Antiwar demonstrations are not really covered — they weren’t, certainly not with the gusto we heard when the bomb-throwers, at their rallies, they were all over the news. And now we have John McCain who seems ready to bomb everybody ...

The other thing, Elias, you don’t hear, is Fox pundits [who] say anything positive about Barack Obama, because if they do they risk losing their base. They are trapped in a format which is hugely successful. I think Fox does a billion dollar profit a year, net. I mean this is the jewel in the crown of for-profit corporations ... Rupert Murdoch reigns, and for somebody like Charles Krauthammer or George Will or Sean Hannity to say something positive about Obama — that would be akin to a rock 'n’ roll radio station playing classical music. If you do that, if a rock 'n’ roll radio station played Mozart, they would lose their audience immediately; and in the same way, if one of the Fox pundits said something even remotely positive about Obama, the base would say, "What, are you losing your nerve?" It’s too risky. You’re making $1 billion per year. "There ain’t nothing broke about our corporation; don’t fix it."

The result is, I happen to think these were probably A students — Krauthammer, George Will, those who speaks in tablets, these were very gifted people; they’re the sons my mother wanted; these were the guys who raised their hand in class. And we’re getting only half their wisdom and insight, because they’re restricted by the format. We aren’t treated to what they might be sharing with us, other nuances. It’s like their arms can only extend so far from their bodies, they can’t go all the way because then we might learn something interesting and insightful that their gifts could bring us. So before their feet hit the floor in the morning, they’re thinking about what they can do to blast the president tonight. Krauthammer used the word “stupidest” a couple weeks ago. The “stupidest” thing a president ever did ... But there aren’t enough superlatives in the English language to meet their denunciations of the president, and the result is they’re all becoming one-trick ponies, because they can’t get out of this straitjacket of the format, which earns Fox $1 billion per year. Who wants to fool with that? The issue now is, will they have legs? How long can they draw a crowd with this kind of narrow commentary?

Do you think that the same problems afflict MSNBC?

I do. But it’s not as bad. It’s not as bad. MSNBC people allow themselves to criticize the president — and the president is vulnerable. I’ve criticized him myself in one of my rare guest appearances. I was on Piers Morgan and I criticized Obama. I think these signature strikes are not only unconstitutional, I think they’re immoral. I think drones are the most cowardly instruments in the history of warfare. A guy sits in an air-conditioned cage on a padded chair, looking at a TV monitor at an image 4,000 or 5,000 miles away, and we are killing wedding parties and children ...  We killed an American citizen. I mean, and this is with the total support of the people who bragged about America the most; America, America, the Constitution. And they totally turned their back on the bedrock of the Constitution. We have people in cages for 15 years, no Red Cross, no visitation, no letters, no nothing. For 14, 15 years. No habeas corpus. And these blatant violations are met with silence. We are a nation of law unless we’re scared.

So, to expand a bit on what you just said, would you consider killing someone with a gun to be more cowardly than doing it with a knife?

Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, consider the guy in the cage and the boots on the ground. Who’s safer? Who’s safer, the drone operator? The guy in the cage with the joystick and the ability to fire a hellfire missile on an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV — that’s a drone) is certainly safer than the boots on the ground. That’s the attraction of the drone.

But we’re killing children! And how much attention are we getting on this? This is horrible! The president signs off on a signature strike from the Oval Office, explains the person we want to assassinate. The legacy we are leaving our children is scary. Are they gonna worry about getting on the wrong bus? Entering the wrong marathon? Are we gonna get stark naked in order to get on an airplane?

You think, then, that these strikes may exacerbate the threat of terrorism in the future?

Absolutely! I worry about it! And so do millions of other Americans, and their voices are not heard. If you say, "Why did they knock the towers down?" you’re blaming the victim. You can’t even ask that question. We’re not even allowed to wonder, because then … At every turn, you’re stopped … I can’t get over this: If you question a military foreign policy decision, you’re not patriotic; you’re not supporting the president. If you send troops, then you have a responsibility to shut up and sing. If some of the troops die, and you criticize the action, you’re defiling the valor of the soldier who died. You’re stopped there.

To your point, it's not only civilians who get held to that kind of rigid and blinkered view of patriotism. As the whole Bowe Bergdahl saga showed, troops can become targets, too.

Right, he certainly was, and how about Snowden? All he did was reveal that there are 16 intelligence agencies. Maybe 17, maybe 14. But isn’t’ that amazing? And [government intelligence agencies] farm out the work! The work of these intelligence agencies is largely done by civilians! We have thousands and thousands of Americans with a top security clearance. And a lot of them drink alcohol, just like I used to. And what are they saying to the guy in the next stool?

You mentioned a bit ago that antiwar voices aren't heard. You also noted that part of the reason Cheney and his fellow travelers are back is because they're big names in every TV booker's rolodex. So my question is, are you in that rolodex? Have you been asked to appear on any of these shows?

No — occasionally ... [Cheney et al.] are the news, and I’m not. "You’re a talk show host, you’re not us; you’re not a reporter."

Before I let you go, I wanted to ask — and I know it's 2014 so this is premature — but I wanted to ask if you know who you're going to support in 2016? Are you looking at anyone on the Democratic side, or a possible third-party candidate? I somewhat doubt you're paying that kind of attention to the Republicans ...

I was on Nader’s bus in 2000. We would do super-rallies ... It was a very exciting time for me. Because of my show, I had never really been an active participant in anybody’s campaign. And I always wanted to be ... I couldn’t get on the [campaign] bus because of my show ... But in 2000, I got on the bus; I campaigned for Nader. And then, to save my marriage, I got off the bus in ’04 ... My wife was ready to leave me; we were going to elect another Republican, [she said].

I very proudly voted for Obama. I mean, really, I’m not ashamed to say that when I saw the … I mean, I interviewed Rosa Parks! You know, "Back of the bus, lady!" From that, to "I, Barack Obama, do solemnly swear." Well, you know, that moved me. That really moved me. I went, "Wow." And it’s been somewhat of a disappointment the last two years. But it certainly could be worse, and I’m not sorry I voted for him. I think he’s an honorable man. But as to who I’m going to vote for to replace him? I’m going to hold my cards there ... I’ve been maybe a little too enthusiastic and jumped the gun the last several times, so we’ll see. Although, I got my eye on Bernie Sanders ...

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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