Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Seizing the deluge.

When does a philanthropic outreach become a promotional stunt? Is it cynical of me--OK, let's amend that; is it more cynical than usual--to wonder about the motives of some of those, or at least one of those, currently trekking to Katrina-ravaged areas of the American southeast? I have in mind Dr. Phil McGraw's ubiquitous presence on the tube, of late, in connection with his pilgrimage to NOLA, as it's lovingly called by some of the locals. CBS News reports that "Dr. Phil McGraw just returned from New Orleans, where he helped counsel some of the rescue workers, and to film a special episode of his talk show entitled Rescuing The Rescuers." (Much later on, the same report notes that "the Dr. Phil Show and CBSNews.com have the same parent company, Viacom, Inc." This is meant as a nod to fairness and "full disclosure" in an era when virtually all media outlets are owned by a small handful of mega-conglomerates.) Of course, if you've been awake at any time during the past week or so, you didn't need to hear this from CBS News. McGraw has been doing Larry King just about nightly; he also has been touting his feel-your-pain-fest on the morning shows, in commercial spots for his own show, and at just about every other opportunity. For example, as CBS informs us in its report, "Dr. Phil will be on The Early Show again Tuesday to discuss how to begin rebuilding lives after Katrina, and on Wednesday he'll offer a sneak peek at the new season of his show..." What we appear to have here, then, is a case of hurricane-as-perfect-segue-into-the-fall season.

We learn from the good doctor's home network that during his air-boat tour of New Orleans, McGraw encountered many distraught, emotionally closed-off people, and he counseled them that "what you've got to do is talk about this." Thank you, Dr. Phil. McGraw also described himself as "proud" to offer the New Orleans chief of police, Edwin Compass, a "shoulder to cry on." According to CBS, McGraw hugged Compass for close to five minutes. There is no mention of whether either man lit up afterwards, or if they'll continue to see each other....

Excuse me my sarcasm and/or poor taste, folks, but this is a nurturing, humanistic side of Dr. Phil that seems to have made its debut rather late in life--conveniently enough, right about the time Oprah discovered him and gave him a regular Tuesday slot on her show. By all early accounts--including those emerging from his own mouth--McGraw came of age as a volatile boozer. In a 2000 interview with CNN's Beverly Schuch, he confessed, "In high school and college, my friends and I were pretty violent. It wouldn't be unusual to find us in a bar fight before the end of the night on a real regular basis. I probably shouldn't be talking about that."

Another thing McGraw doesn't like to talk about is his first wife, Debbie, whose very existence may come as a shock to those who got the (carefully cultivated) impression that perky Robin, the latest to join the Family McGraw's stable of seven-figure authors, is his one-and-only. I found Debbie in small-town Kansas, where the two of them once lived together. She was only too happy to talk, characterizing her famous ex as a "control freak" who inflicted no small amount of emotional trauma on her during their three-year marriage, which ended in 1973. "He would come and go and never wanted to be questioned about it," she told me. Meanwhile, he would grill her about the smallest details of her own daily routine, typically requiring her, she says, to check in with him every time she left the house. On her personal web site, which is great fun and I heartily recommend, Debbie summarizes the end of their marriage thusly: "We divorced due to irreconcilable differences. (That means he screwed around.)" At one time she was selling coffee mugs featuring their wedding photo, and inscribed with a snappy take-off on one of Dr. Phil's favorite latter-day lines: "What was I thinking?"

Nor can I overlook that today's new-and-improved Phil McGraw, this man who has a ready remedy for every life crisis major or minor (up to and including natural disasters), burned out of one-on-one therapy years before Oprah encountered him and conferred the Harpo Touch. "The world's worst marital therapist you've ever seen" is how McGraw once recalled his days in clinical practice. "I couldn't get anybody better," he has said, in part because "I had no patience for my patients." But that's all forgotten now. Today, miraculously, Dr. Phil has all the answers. I suppose that when people dangle $75 million long-term TV deals in front of you, you tend to find answers to things that weren't so clear before....


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I know some one that has to watch the crap of a show starting phil, One day it sounded like he was saying his wife was his first love….but I remembered he had another one at one point and she sold mugs. So I told her about it and she couldn’t believe me so I spent a few hours looking for her on the internet….found no mention. Then I found this sight today, but the link to her webpage doesn’t seem to work, just wondering if it moved or if maybe the “phill show” paid her off or something. Ill check back for an answer thanks