Having our Phil

I’m sitting in Base & Ignoble’s, not buying books but drinking coffee and trying to stop reading WaPo telling me what I already know (Littlefingers acted out at a press conference this morning. Oh, really?), trying to get to work but I’m overhearing two very loud very expensively haired skinny former Long-Islander denizens of the Upper West Side playing I-can-top-that over whether their daughters will rush sororities successfully or have to transfer to Yale. (Have you heard of “Johns Hopkins”? says Carly-Simon-looking to Gloria-Steinem-looking. I think it’s for pre-meds.) Then they start talking about how they really don’t know enough but one of their husbands knows someone at work who was once in the army in Israel and he says Netanyahu is right, but really I need to read some more, I don’t know what to think.  Did you read Hillbilly Elegy?

Oh for chrisssake. This is exactly what I was going to write about. I thought it this morning. I thought. “It’s all goddamn Phil Donahue’s fault, Phil Donahue with that goddamn long wireless microphone.”

You have no idea, I’m guessing, who Phil Donahue was. Is. The reliably liberal husband of Marlo Free to Be You and Me Thomas, but also Phil was Oprah before there was Oprah, before Oprah could be. Phil may even have been the one who hired Oprah, who gave her her shot, I can’t remember and I don’t feel like looking it up. He was smart, middle-aged, prematurely white-haired and reliably Irish. Voluble. Plain-talking. White.

Phil had a talk show, with guests as serious as daytime TV got back then, more serious than most, with Expertise, for Serious Conversation, but Phil was no Right Coast elitist. He was an American, Chicago-born, a democrat, small d (large too).  With that goddamn small-d democratic microphone of his. Technology can’t change everything, you say? You never saw Phil Donahue hop off the stage into the studio audience wielding that long microphone, asking those audience people what they think.

People who’d, what?, sent stamped self-addressed envelopes in advance for a ticket for a taping since they’d be in Chicago on vacation, or maybe lined up at the last minute to see Phil and Sally Field or Betty Friedan or Cher or Daniel Patrick Moynihan or someone they’d never read about in Time on that stage, live and in person. People who were, by definition, “who?”  Phil brought them that microphone. And damn if every one every last one of them didn’t have an impassioned opinion on the budget, contraception, nuclear waste, on containment, East Asian policy, on whether homosexuality was inborn or a choice, whatever goddamn topic not one of them had thought about for five minutes, for one minute, until Phil pointed that mike-wand toward their pieholes.

I know what you’re thinking.  You’re thinking those people had every bit as much right to opinions as I do, right?, back in those days before any twit could blog his little heart away on WordPress. You’d be right, too, right 100%. But I’m not talking about me. Or Carly or Gloria or their daughters who might transfer to Barnard instead (it’s a girls’ school). Because this is America, right, and we all have a right to an opinion, and we all have a right blah blah blah to be heard.

Or, an electoral majority’s decided, to be President.

That’s why I’m mad at Phil Donahue today. I can’t blame the dishonest media or illegal leakers or James Who-me? of the FBI or some activist judge or anyone else Littlefingers and That Woman in the Hidey Hole in Chappaqua blame for the way things turned out, even Well-Oiled-Bodied Vlad the Oilman. None of those people decided you didn’t need to know shit to be President or that once you were President you didn’t need even to read, even to read graphs and tables, or ask anyone who knows anything about anything anything. You only had to have an opinion. You only had to be an American. Thanks, Phil.

The two moms left a while ago: off to pick their youngests up from good neighborhood charter schools. Now there’s a dad about my age and his 10 year old daughter at that table; she’s got a decaf mocha and a croissant. She pulls a worksheet out of her backpack, smooths it on the table, I read “Eskimo Good Manners,” and she points to the line-drawn-illustrated faces of three Inuit women or maybe men, I can’t tell upside down, and she asks, “Dad, is that Native American?”

Dad looks at the worksheet, doesn’t touch it, just looks. A good long time. Looks at her, and she’s waiting (and I’m waiting) and after a very long while he says, “Why do you ask?”

I didn’t see that coming.

She says she wasn’t sure, or something, and he thinks again and thinks and then he says, very softly, “Very similar. But I don’t think they were in the United States.”

And she fills in the blanks.  She finishes a printout page of long division too. She puts them away and zips her pencils in the pocket in her big black three-ring binder and she says “You know what Trump reminds me of, Dad? You know the guy in the Lego movie, the guy who krazy-glues everyone?”


And so hope stays alive.

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