This week, Magnolia Pictures will release Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie, a stunning new documentary about the eponymous TV talk show host, who died in 2001 after a sensational and meteoric career that changed television. Joe Conason, editor-in-chief of The National Memo, was a regular guest on the show and wrote the following piece of advice to prospective guests on dealing with the extremely aggressive and politically hostile Downey, published in the May 3, 1988 Village Voice and reprinted here with permission.
People who watch the Morton Downey Jr. Show warned me. They thought I was mad to go on as a guest, since I’m just the kind of pablum-puking pinko Mort likes to stomp. Now, I’ve done a few talk shows, and nobody warns you about Eyewitness News Conference, except to say that on Sunday morning there may be no viewers. Therefore I found the prospect of video doom scary, but exciting. “It’s only a TV show,” I kept muttering in my mind. And besides, it was too late to back out.
After the segment (“Ollie North: Hero or Criminal?”) aired a few weeks ago, I was pleased to hear the same experts who had assumed my destruction tell me that, far from being ruined, I’d done rather well. And a week later I was invited back for a debate about the Reagan years. After the second taping, Mort exclaimed to me and Jefferson Morley, the other liberal guest, “You buried us!” – meaning himself and two Washington conservatives. Even if this was Mort’s typical hyperbole, I still liked it. So at the risk of displaying hubris, and to even up the odds for any future guests, I’ll try to explain how I survived.
First a few words to those who ask, with a snobbish smirk, why I would condescend to go on the Downey program at all (for which, incidentally, guests are not paid). Such a question assumes that the show is utterly disreputable, and perhaps it is, but unlike the more high-minded TV gabfests, millions watch it; the questioner’s underlying error is to equate the studio audience, about whom the less said the better, with the viewers. And this reflects an audacious fraud perpetrated by Mort himself, namely that the American people are represented in his studio. You need only listen to the audience participants for a few moments to realize that this could not possibly be true. To assume this would be to abandon hope altogether. The point, if you’re willing to face the howling mob, is that at least you’re not preaching to the converted.
Now, you’ve watched the Morton Downey Jr. Show, or you probably wouldn’t be reading this. Maybe you’ve even fantasized about what you would say to Mort if you had the chance. What I found is that if, as the intended liberal victim, you’re willing to put up a fight, the right-wing guests turn out to be flabby-minded, overconfident, and shocked to meet an adversary who throws the first rhetorical punch. Remember, you can be a progressive and not be a wimp.
Before you try to get booked on the show, however, allow me to state humbly that my own putative success there depended upon a strange sort of luck. The mercurial Mort simply didn’t dislike me as much as I expected he would. Nor did I find him as charmless as he seems to be on TV. I won’t say that Mort Downey is actually a good-humored man who can take it as well as dish it out, because he made me promise not to.
But, for your purposes, his off-camera personality doesn’t matter, and anyway, he probably wouldn’t like you. The Mort who matters is the Mort in front of the camera, and he is a classic villain: coarse, bullying, reactionary, demagogic, vicious, bigoted, and sometimes cruel. He’s quick and smart, too, but that doesn’t keep him from tossing out bogus facts, or hiding behind the flag when he’s losing the argument. And he loves to launch an irrelevant attack and then cut to a commercial before you can answer.
Unfair? It’s all part of the Morton Downey Jr. Game. Here’s how to play: