Remember Phil Donahue? This is the guy that started it all in talk show land. During our conversation he turned the tables on Russ and started interviewing him. I guess it’s something you never stop doing. This interview was a reminder of why we do this thing issue after issue. The subject matter was his documentary about a young man wounded in Iraq. We are much in debt to Mr. Donahue for the wisdom he imparted. Enjoy.
AUSTIN DAZE: First time in Austin?
PHIL DONAHUE: No. Ellen Spiro is our cinematographer and she teaches at UT. I came here three years ago when we started this—this film has been in the making for three years. Ellen knows me more than she ever wanted to. It’s been a very, very emotional experience if you must know. People see you in a wheelchair and think, “Oh poor baby, he can’t walk.” It’s a lot more complicated than that. I’m embarrassed to think about how uniformed I was. You don’t understand bowl and bladder—not a lot of people go around talking about it. Thomas’ pills were unbelievable. So we are all a little bit smarter. I see people talking loudly to Thomas. He can hear and yet they scream at him. You see all the indignities; you see all the architectural barriers. These are the things that non-challenged people don’t think of. There aren’t vans in some of the biggest cities. Apparently it is not very profitable to do handicapped vehicles. That’s been very instructive to us. We had no idea. Here we are trying to tell his story in a film.
AD: Why him?
PH: I was invited by Ralph Nader, a friend of mine, to meet him. We meet him and it’s wall to wall morphine. I learn the gravity of his injury—he’s a T4—paralyzed from the nipples down. I thought, People should see this; this is the sacrifice that is hidden in this country that you don’t see. This is what casualty means. People think, Oh thank God he didn’t die. This is the harm in harms way. Every person that enlists in the military thinks, “I might come home dead.” Nobody thinks they are coming home like this. This is a drama taking place in thousands of homes in America occupied by people like Thomas who signed up and had an arm or a leg or a face blown up. We have kids, blind; a lot of spinal injuries. Not to mention head problems. The American people have already left the war. It’s no longer the number one thing. We are worried about the economy. Well, Ok, I am too. How would you like to be over there with the bullets flying by and you read that America is no longer thinking of your war as their number one concern? This is awful; this is really awful. It’s macho west Texas sheriff; it’s a massive foreign policy blunder. And Thomas is in a wheelchair. And by the way, the Commander-in-Chief who sent him to war will not approve stem cell research.
AD: We know that Thomas feels strongly about stem cell research.
PH: We had to be careful because we don’t want to hang too many ornaments on this tree because then it just becomes wallpaper. We are a nation that can’t wait to “God Bless” this and “God Bless” that. We don’t draft the rich—only working class people go to war. We are spreading democracy and ruining it at home. We have people in cages with no connection to the outside world. This is chipping at the bedrock of this nation. If you are arrested you have a right to confront the accuser to find out why you are here—that’s called habeas corpus. If you scare the people you can do just about anything and we think our film shows that. It was a bumper sticker debate. The President took the whole nation by the ear and walked it right into the sewer.
AD: Have you gotten any feedback from the administration?
PD: This gang in Washington believes war happens—that’s their attitude. War happens; it’s terrible; it’s hell and there is no feeling for the detail of these burdensome challenges that have been dropped on thousands of families in the country. I just can’t get over it. Here we are the First Amendment and we are arguing whether water boarding is torture. The tapping of phones. This is not the nation my parents taught the Pledge of Allegiance to. And we are the ones that are being told that we don’t love America. We love America better than they do. We are especially impressed with the founding fathers and how visionary they were. They knew you don’t want to give the power to declare war to one person. They knew this. Imagine how smart they were. We don’t declare war constitutionally—we haven’t since the early 40s. What Congress does is get permission, essentially saying, “If you think you have to, Mr. President.” And then they are covered if it doesn’t work. These are the first people to walk away from our own Constitution. It is unbelievable what the President can do to scare us. Unbelievable. And Bush has successfully done it. “Saddam’s outside your bedroom window.” “He is under your bed.” You can see it. “Saddam Hussein has more weapons than Hitler ever thought to have.” “History will show that the people who stopped Saddam Hussein saved the world.” This is how hysterical grown men can become.
This is when I thought we could do something. We can make a movie with an odd couple: a twenty-something year old kid in a wheelchair and 89-year-old senator. The longest senator in the history of this nation. 9 times elected. He passed Strom Thurmond 3 years ago. The only person positioned to surpass him is Ted Kennedy.
AD: I couldn’t stop thinking about his girlfriend Bree. What happened to her?
PD: First of all I’m not sure there is a shrink out there that wouldn’t have predicted this. I understand it—I went to the wedding and I think that her commitment was real and I think Thomas’s was real but clearly it didn’t work.
AD: It did seem like it was coming from him; that the anger was coming from Thomas.
PD: (To Russ)You must have had it? Do you feel angry?
AD: Me, I turn anger into trying to find the good things going on.
PD: How long did it take you to do that?
AD: 2 years. For the first two years I was really secluded and angry. But it’s all about the simple things; the little things. It’s a little switch of perspective.
PD: You’re more insightful than most people. Thomas went from a life of single bars, loud music, and draft beer to puke pans, a bowl and bladder, morning nausea—every morning he throws up. What’s a sacrifice to you? For what? We had five dead the other day. Five dead—bingo. A woman walked up to them. Imagine if you look out the window and the two uniformed officers are coming up the front walk. You faint. The parents faint. The majority of our population has not emotionally clued into this. This is because the administration has done a fabulous job of sanitizing the war. We deify the soldiers as if somehow that will make us feel better. There are too many of us that are not emotionally touched by this war.
AD: The media has played a big role in this.
PD: You need no more evidence of corporate media than the group of young people called: Media Reform. That’s their banner. They believe corporate media is ruining America. Every major metropolitan newspaper supported this war. Every single one. The New York Times has written thousands of corrections saying, “We should have; we could have”—there is a lot of guilt. You could not dissent against this war in the beginning. You were slapped. You weren’t patriotic; you didn’t support the troops; you didn’t understand; you were a wimp; you wanted to sing Kumbaya and were totally impractical and more than that you don’t love America. You should just shut up and sing. That was the pressure. The antiwar dissenters were totally marginalized. They were made to be kind of radical anti-patriots.
AD: And unsupportive and on the wrong side.
PD: Blame the victim. You couldn’t ask “Why?” Susan Sontag wrote a piece that talked about attempting to understand what would move a country to do this and had her head taken off. Not only couldn’t we protest the war we couldn’t examine what would move these guys to randomly kill 3,000 innocent people. You couldn’t ask those questions. The pressure to shut up came from everywhere.
At the time I had a cable show and I remember interviewing people that had a group called Peaceful Tomorrow and Not in Our Name. There were loved ones of people that were killed in the towers and they were saying, “Don’t be killing other innocent people to avenge the death of my innocent love.” They were standing up and saying, “Hold it. This is awful, nobody was saying that it wasn’t but it doesn’t follow that you go and knock off a dictator that had nothing to do with this attack; unprovoked and never a threat to us.”
The framers put this article in Section 8 of the constitution so presidents wouldn’t do this. This is why you want 535 Congress members making this collective decision: up or down. You have the responsibility of declaring war and if you want to you have been elected the power. Now let’s vote on it—no secret; open ballot. And they are so afraid of being called wimps. We are never going to be safe or feel safe in this country until we have the courage to vote for people that are going to reach out instead of lash out. It is easier to get elected if you tell people you are tough.
AD: What would your solution be to make it better?
PD: First of all, let’s get a media with some bite. Let’s get a media that isn’t so beholden to boardroom politics. Being against the war was not good for business. If you are trying to merchandise and you are worried about the price of your stock the last thing you want is a complainer; a person who is against a decision by the President. This is not patriotic. They have actually convinced a significant percentage of people in this country that to protest a war is not supporting the troops; unpatriotic; wimpy. It took a lot of courage to protest this war. How are you going to say “No” three weeks before the election when everybody is mad as hell? You won’t get re-elected. It’s a perfect storm.
AD: It’s funny because the paper that we do is a microcosm of this. When we were writing against the war and trying to get people to think about what is going on, so many of my advertisers backed out.
PD: You should be speaking out. What happened to you; people should know. If it’s going to happen to a free paper you can imagine what happens at the New York Times or the Austin American Statesman. This is a great story. I can’t get over the pretense of it. The hypocrisy of it is very thick.
AD: We do have a responsibility as media. What can other people do?
PD: We are trying to say, “Don’t reinvent the protests”. There are a lot of people already out there and they will be happy to see you. We owe it to the people that fought and died on foreign battlefields to protect our way of life. American soldiers have been going to war for a long time to protect our freedom and we are wasting their blood. That was not the vision of the framers and that’s very encouraging something.” And that is very good for us. We are trying to put wind into the sails of the anti-war movement. Thomas wants to be a player. I want to be a player. I want to be a person who takes advantage of the constitution. I’m not demanding that people agree with me. But don’t tell me to shut up and don’t call me names and don’t decide what is motivating my behavior. Don’t label dissenters. Some of the most
patriotic and important people in American history have been dissenters. It’s a proud tradition that over the years has been lost in a fog of religion and false piety. It’s been lost in macho, “We’re the last remaining superpower.” Millions of millions of dollars spent by the people who want to prove they are tough will send your kids and would never think of sending their own. Laptop bombers; chicken hawks. We are saying, there are already people out there. Join them; speak up; write a letter. ***