AT SIMON & SCHUSTER, they were excited. "You're on the cover of 'Publisher's Weekly'," editor-in-chief Michael Korda told talk-show king Phil Donahue. "Just your picture. No name. You and the ayatollah are the only two people that would work for."

He may be right.

Phil Donahue is the Cronkite of the morning, an oasis in a wasteland, the trusted host who, according to TV Guide, "hit daytime television like a hormone injection directly into the carotid artery of the American housewife." So powerful is his appeal that the "Today" show signed him as a regular contributor last May.

But in a New York office recently, Donahue looked much more subdued that he does goes on television, his eyes more pale and penetrating. And for good reason: "In an attempt to be honest you pay a price," he said -- afraid that his popular image may self-destruct in the confessional heat of his first book, "Donahue: My Own Story."

The book reveals he was a virgin before marriage, a lousy lover afterward, and avoided the draft through fatherhood. Although a former choirboy, he now finds the Catholic church "racist," "sexist" and "destructive." He considers many fellow journalists "professional gapers" who pursue rat-pack "me-too-ism." And television, he says, provides the public with what Lenny Bruce called "plastic puke." (See review in today's Book World section.)

Such candor is not new to Donahue, but it usually comes from his guests and audience. His program is television's most consistent forum for provocative, controversial subject matter: lesbian couples adopting children; parents of homosexuals; breast-feeding mothers; unwed mothers; elderly people living together out of wedlock; victims of incest.

He has parlayed their problems into the top spot in the dog-eat-puppy world of syndicated talk shows. The competition is tough -- young, energetic hosts are constantly clawing for national access, and even the long-popular Mike Douglas was recently canceled. But Donahue is top dog becuase he has attracted and maintained an extraordinarily large audience. More than 8 1/2 million viewers in over 200 markets now watch him daily, eclipsing all other syndicated talk shows. Merv Griffin reaches only 3.9 million viewers, Mike Douglas 3.7 and Dinah Shore 2.8 million.

"Donahue" is unlike any other talk show. He usually has only one guest and discusses only one topic. There is no wise-cracking sidekick, band, desk or ashtray. He works live (most markets broadcast an unedited tape). "Even if there's spinach in my teeth, it goes," Donahue says. The audience is small and compact, practically sitting in the guest's lap. Discussion rapidly evolves into a group event, with Donahue roaming along the aisles, cajoling, flirting, taunting and enticing. The audience quickly picks up his rhythm. They moan, gasp and applaud, and surround him with a chorus of questions and arguments. If they're slow, he takes telephone calls. Meanwhile, his body is working fulltime. Fingers point. Arms wave. He grins or grimaces extravagantly. Playing to the camera unmercifully, he leans close, interrupts, turns his back and challenges.

And he seems without shame: "I would be afraid I'm going to die if someone told me I had leukemia. Aren't you?" he asks a dying child. He's not afraid to sound stupid, either. To a dying 18-year-old he says, "That's a real punch in the nose."

Questions invariably come with the standard Donahue prefixes: "I don't want to be maudlin about this" or "It's hard to make this point without sounding a little patronizing." As rewrds, he dispenses liberal "God bless you's" and "I love you's." And sometimes he's slapped down. A pediatrician whom he accused of being too vain retorted, "When a child urinates on your tie at least once a week, it's hard to be too vain."

Donahue loves it. "When half of America is saying, 'That guest got him,' believe me when I tell you it's fine with me." But answering questions in person, he chooses words carefully, as though any slip will damage his good-guy reputation. The result is staccato silence between phrases -- quite unlike his fast-moving, loquacious television image. "It's not important to me when we are on that I win. What's important is that our conversation is interesting. That's what I'm paid to do."

In Donahue's world the biggest sin is to be boring. He has little respect for "people who float a battleship of words around a rowboat of thought." Shortly after the show begins he may be warning that time is almost gone. "Let's put a ribbon on this," he tells the long-winded. He rarely expects answers to questions: He wants only punchy responses.

"We're talking about a medium that evaluates people according to the force with which they can communicate ideas," Donahue explains. "Not everybody who writes a book is necessarily a good television persona. It's a shame. And not everybody who's a good television persona necessarily knows what they're talking about."

"I'm not sure I could put Henry Kissinger on my show," Donahue says. "He speaks in tablets. We'd lose the audience." To prove his point, Donahue does a Kissinger imitation, complete with heavy accent. Donahue's worst programs are with a Norman Mailer or a Ted Kennedy. He can't put a ribbon on them because, as media darlings, they can reveal as much or as little as they please.

"There's nothing too controversial for television," Donahue says. "What's important is the manner in which it is presented." A staff of 15, mostly women, decides what gets on the show. "We read a lot of magazines. We steal a lot from other shows," Donahue says. "We also get an awful lot of phone calls and letters from people asking us to be on. That's one of the nice things about being hot."

Donahue has been quoted as telling his staff, "I want all the topics hot . Not even lukewarm -- hot!" Donahue denies using that word, but says, "It had better be an issue about which people care or we're all going to be parking cars."

He doesn't just talk to the audience. Picking up a desk stapler to act as a surrogate microphone, he stands, flexes his shoulders and acts out his "dialogues" with them. Similarly, he says he "showcases," rather than presents, issues and people. "We had a woman whose baby was taken back by the adoption agency. She cried on the air," he says proudly. When guests verge on breakdowns or exhibitionism, Donahue becomes a combination parish priest and understanding neighbor. To a tearful father whose teenaged daughter died he says, "You must know that she wants you to be happy. We can tell that you loved your daughter." Some guests receive a silent, comforting pat on the hand.

"You've got to be hungry and ambitious," he says, explaining how he caters to his 85-percent-female audience: "Behavior issues are very big for us. You know, men and women, and 'he doesn't kiss me anymore.'"

With resignation in his voice, Donahue will concede that his show is "a platform for pitchmen," one endless commercial. (His book reports that in 1978, 56 percent of his programs featured guests with something to sell.) He criticizes the fake fame offered television celebrities and yet admits he accepts free pizzas and permits a teen-aged son to accept free car repairs.

Whatever the goal of any particular program, Donahue is an emotional fellow traveler -- involved, sympathetic, respectful. He too appears vulnerable, capable of tears, joy or simply being left speechless when an 80-year-old woman says a man has "taken her to the stars."

Donahue calls himself a "shy, insecure, vulnerable man-child." But he is Man-Child in Television Land, and viewers get to know him not as they know Walter Cronkite, but as they know Archie Bunker and Hawkeye Pierce.

Donahue says that as an adolescent he considered "dates always an occasion for sin." He married his college sweetheart in 1958, right after graduation. Six years later they had five children, two born in the same year.

After 17 years, his wife left him. The divorce settlement gave her custody of the daughter and him the four boys. She returned to her native New Mexico, remarried and disappeared from public view -- until now, with publication of a "family" picture in Donahue's book.

In 1975 Donahue set up housekeeping in suburban Chicago, and the women's magazines dubbed him "Bachelor-Father." He was a famous but unsuccesssful single until 1977, when actress Marlo Thomas made her second appearance on his program. "How important is love?" Donahue asked her on the air. "I like having a man in my life. I like someone to love me," Thomas replied. They became a couple, even though he lives in Chicago and she lives in New York. "Obviously it's complicated," Donahue says.

In a way, his show has been therapeutic for Donahue, who believes his personal life mirrors the problems discussed on TV: "The light's started to go on in me. I noticed that my children weren't really sharing feelings with me -- and one of the reasons was I don't do a hell of a lot of sharing with them in terms of feelings. And I began to examine why, listen to some of the shrinks and people who do our show. I began to realize that not much in the way we were raised encouraged that."

Men, he says, "have done an awful lot of oppression. And a lot of us went out there, charging out into the world breathlessly getting married and then suddenly afterward finding that we were really paralyzed in our attempts to share real feelings. A relationship that should be renewed and examined can't grow as long as we're not telling our women how we feel.

"I have come to the point where I am at peace with my own imperfection in terms of understanding it, and I am enjoying the business of wondering."

So, is Phil Donahue Everyman? "To say 'yes' to that question flatters me," he says, pausing to look at the wall as though hoping to see the proper answer. "Yes," finally emerges.

Phil Donahue was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and it was his childhood goal to be a "good broadcaster." Studying business administration at Notre Dame brought maturity and a desire to serve a city "with two airports." He broke into broadcasting in 1957 as a summer TV announcer. That fall he became a radio reporter in Adrian, Mich. Ten months later he moved to a CBS radio-television affiliate in Dayton, Ohio. He gave hog prices on the radio at 5:30 a.m., and his hand appeared twice on film used on the CBS Evening News. Once, Donahue says, Walter Cronkite himself telephoned to say, "Phil, that was a goddamned good interview you sent us yesterday. If you get anything else you think we can use, call me personally."

Donahue said, "Thank you, Walter," and promptly fired off audition tapes and glossies. Neither Cronkite nor CBS responded, a silence echoed by everyone else to whom the ambitious Donahue mailed resumes. He was stuck in southwestern Ohio, where his Dayton journalistic high points included the moment in 1960 when he asked Pat Nixon if she were proud of her husband and spat in her eye on the "p."

He rose as far as possible in Dayton -- anchoring the television news and hosting a radio call-in show. After eight years he quit and tried his hand as a traveling salesman. Then another Dayton television station asked him to replace a local talk show host who had gone on to better things in Hollywood (he's now the announcer for Dinah Shore). Donahue inherited not only the show, but a live studio audience whom he decided not to burden with yet another song-and-dance program.

On Monday, Nov. 6, 1967, his first guest was Madalyn Murray O'Hair, the woman whose lawsuit eliminated prayer from public schools. His second show featured single men discussing what they liked in women. Wednesday brought an obstetrician, and on Thursday he climbed into a coffin as he interviewed a mortician. Sometime during the first two weeks -- Donahue can't remember when or why -- he walked into the audience and offered the microphone to a woman in the sixth row, who stood up and asked a question. It was a good question. It was good television. From that moment, "Donahue" became an audience-participation program. "There is no show without the audience," Donahue says.

Dayton provided another important impetus to success. Top-rate talent rarely visited Dayton, Donahue says, and those who did would ask him, "What am I doing here?" Fortunately, comedian-author Erma Bombeck lived across the street, but Donahue knew he "couldn't have her on every day." So he returned to his radio roots and focused on marriage, illness, sexuality, death and other problems "ordinary" people could discuss.

As he recalls the past, Donahue stands again and begins to pace. After talking without interruption for over two hours, he doesn't loosen his tie or roll up his sleeves.

His real problems, he says, were economic. In 1969 "Donahue" (until 1974 called "The Phil Donahue Show") entered national syndication, but half a decade later his salesman quit because the show was stuck at around 40 markets and "just couldn't sell." In 1974, under intense pressure to "put some glitter in the show," he moved to Chicago, hoping to attract better guests and big-city flair. By 1976 he'd been canceled three times in New York, the nation's top market, and sadly decided he'd "become a candidate for a trivia contest two decades hence."

But in 1978 New York's WNBC bought "Donahue" for the second time and he began to capture the nation's attention. "Suddenly my phone was ringing," Donahue says. National magazines ran complimentary stories. The "Today" show signed him, as rumors spread that he'd soon jump to the networks.

Donahue denied the rumors by signing a six-year contract to continue independent production. He didn't need CBS, NBC or ABC. He'd defeated them at their own game.

"In a network situation," Donahue says, "one guy can end your career while he's shaving." But each of the more than 200 "Donahue" stations -- including flagship WGN in Chicago -- buys it on his terms: If any station manager wants to pull the plug, fine. Donahue has plenty of other markets. If the station manager objects to a particular program, Donahue argues, but he will supply a back-up.

In effect, Donahue has 200 bosses and they provide a fascinating study in what the public will tolerate -- even seek -- once outside the networks. Stations rarely cancel his show and few refuse to air individual programs. Issues that provoke censorship are almost always sexual. A typical example is the cancellation of a Masters and Johnson broadcast in Medford, Ore., because they "tantalized the audience by talking about homosexuality."

In perhaps the most unusual move, the "Today" show recently refused a Donahue report on new methods of treatment for impotent men. "We don't like to discuss sex at that hour of the morning," NBC explained. Less than half an hour after that report would have been aired, WNBC in New York (owned by the network) broadcast an hour-long "Donahue" on the same subject. "Today's subsequent instructions to Donahue: "No clinical sex."

Donahue feels his success has given other talk shows "more courage" and that the public will soon see fewer entertainers talking about "how long it took to make their last movie." At the same time, however, in success he sees the seeds of destruction.

To Donahue, danger comes not from sponsors or subscribing stations, but from his own instincts for self-preservation. He feels akin to a large corporation. "It's no mystery to me why they are so conservative," Donahue says. "Why rock the boat?" His best years, he fears, may already be behind him: "The most creative, innovative ideas come from people with the least power and the least to lose." His voice becomes soft, "We have a lot to lose now."

He feels he's let America see it all -- a homosexual in 1968, Jane Fonda in 1969, even a Nazi who said blacks and Jews should be deported. Public response wasn't always entirely pleasant, but continued commercial success gave Donahue confidence. After Fonda's appearance some sponsors said they wouldn't "pay for a program that tears America down." Says Donahue, "Well, what does that mean? Can I put on Barry Goldwater, who thinks we ought to drop nuclear bombs?"

Donahue can conceive of absolutely no topic that could hurt his career. "That's not going to happen," he explains. "They see in me a way to produce some income."

"Controversy is not a dirty word," he says. "controversy means it's important and it's something that people disagree on." He once said, "If they found Hitler, I'd be the first in line to interview him."