He beamed, he stabbed the air with his microphone, he patted backs and hitched his pants and sweated photogenically under the klieg lights. "Is the caller there?" he said, and the caller was. What's more, the caller was from Washington.
Phil Donahue brought his talk show to town yesterday for the first time to broadcast one show and tape another. "I'm with you and you're with me," he said to fans, mostly women, packed side by side on carpet-covered bleachers in the studio at CBS affiliate Channel 9. "It's more fun if you get in on this thing. Where's my Kleenex? Hey, we're doing all right. You know, it's a living. Who's next? I'm nowhere without you. Come on, help me out."
Donahue. A man whose talk show needs no first name. "I'm with Donahue," his staffers say.
As anyone who cares already knows, the "Donahue" show recently moved from Chicago to New York. Yesterday was the first time it was broadcast from Washington.
Channel 9 advertised the shows twice, once on Monday, and once last week. First come, first served. Two hundred got there first. Three hundred had to go back home to watch.
"Please don't mug for the cameras," a producer instructed. "Just sit there and look like this is the most interesting thing you've ever heard."
The audience was willing, but those who came hoping to see male strippers, elderly transvestites or any of the other novel talk show guests that Donahue, 49, has made his trademark during 18 years on the air were out of luck. The first show, broadcast live yesterday morning, featured seven governors, here for the National Governors Conference, talking about which of their states should get General Motors' $5 billion Saturn automobile plant.
A few die-hard Phil fans gave the show a B. "Who wants to see seven governors being cute with each other?" one woman said to her companion.
It was the afternoon taping, scheduled to air this morning, that served up the traditional helpings of sensitivity and brimstone. Phyllis Schlafly and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) were on hand to argue with a representative from Norman Lear's People for the American Way and the executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals about the role of secular humanism in public schools.
Hatch and Schlafly, whom Donahue referred to as "these proud conservatives," defended a new law that denies federal funds to schools that teach "secular humanism" without parents' written permission. According to Schlafly, president of the politically conservative Eagle Forum, the offending humanism includes classroom discussions of teen-age suicide, drugs, premarital sex and when it is moral to lie, among other things.
Schlafly volunteered that she thought it was wrong to teach children that lying could ever be morally right. Donahue leaned close: "If the Nazis asked me where Anne Frank was hiding, I would lie," he said with a flourish. The audience applauded feverishly.
Unlike talk show hosts who turn to stone during the commercial breaks, Donahue keeps on working when the red light goes out. He grins, he jokes, he tells stories about himself. "Oh yeah, everybody knows me. I was standing outside my hotel this morning and a truck driver leaned out of his window and said, 'Hey, Merv!' "
Like a true politician, he seems genuinely revived by his audience, which he works with the skill of a ward heeler. Women in the audience said they love him for being the first talk show host to realize that women at home had more on their minds than soap operas and laundry detergent.
"Even if he has strange guests on, at least it's a way to see what's going on in the world," said Carol Hutson, a homemaker from Fairfax.
Between the morning and the afternoon tapings, Donahue sat still for an interview on a local talk show where he was asked for the umpteenth time about his senatorial ambitions. ("Well, I certainly haven't decided," he said.) Staff members say he is mesmerized by politics and C-SPAN, a cable television channel that covers the proceedings on the floor of the House of Representatives.
He left for New York right after the second show, explaining that his wife Marlo Thomas was waiting for him. Staff members say there are no plans to bring the show -- which is broadcast in more than 200 cities -- back to Washington any time soon. At least not to the television studio.
"Phil for President," an elderly woman in the fourth row said cheerily.