This brings us to the Phil Donahue show on Monday. I was asked on Thursday that if they were going to do a show, would I be interested in being a guest. I said I wasn't the guy for a show on sexual abuse because I hadn't worked hard enough on the story but said if they wanted to do something on pro wrestling in general or steroids in pro wrestling I'd be interested. On Friday, they told me the segment was a definite for Monday and they wanted me on so I agreed. The only names I knew of that were going to be guests were John Arezzi, Bruno Sammartino, Orton and Hankins. Later that day I learned that Billy Graham and David Shults had been invited and that Titan rejected an invitation to send either McMahon or a spokesperson. Monday morning I received a phone call telling me that McMahon's office was furious about the show because they claimed every guest but one wasn't credible (me supposedly being the one) and they were at a complete loss in regard to Hankins because they knew nothing about him (ie, no dirt for comebacks to throw him off). Later that morning I was told McMahon had agreed to appear provided the show agreed to a few stipulations: 1) 12 spots in the studio audience for "plants" (in order to try and sway the crowd live and at home with audience reactions favorable to McMahon); 2) McMahon would get to open the two with a two minute uninterrupted speech; 3) He wouldn't go on alone and would bring two guests, a doctor (for credibility if steroids came up) and a lawyer (for credibility on legal issues); 4) That David Shults be bounced from the show. They wouldn't agree to any of the stipulations, although later compromised and agreed only to the fourth one. But at that point, it was obvious McMahon would be there because he wouldn't have made demands unless he had already decided to appear. I didn't know for sure that McMahon was going to appear until an hour before showtime, nor about Murray Hodgson.
Behind the scenes were fascinating. Hodgson knew nobody but was anxious for the show to get underway. Orton seemed kind of nervous because he wanted to improve on his performance on Friday. Sammartino was frustrated with McMahon's lies on Friday and was begging everyone to make sure McMahon wasn't allowed to sit next to him because he was afraid of his temper. Graham seemed to feel the same way. I was pacing, literally scared out of my mind since I'm not a television personality and almost everyone else was.
About ten minutes before show time, Donahue came into the Green Room (waiting room for guests) and all the guests present were in one room. The tension was incredible in the room when McMahon walked in. I don't know if I've ever been in a room where an aura of mutual hatred so filled the air. I believe I was the only one who even acknowledged McMahon and I don't think he made eye contact with anyone else in the room, nor visa versa.
Show time came. McMahon threw the first pitch--the old change-up. Instead of indignance at the charges, it was a new strategy, remorse, understanding, trying just to learn. Clearly, going on the offensive against those who were making allegations about his company on Larry King, while it may have been personally satisfying to those who led him to believe he trounced Bruno, was from a corporate standpoint a bad decision. It only heated the issue. To diffuse the issue there was only one way to go. McMahon was going to have to do a job on television. Sit back and take the lumps and possibly wind up as a babyface at the end because the intensity of some of the guests would be such that it could turn into overkill. From a television and excitement standpoint, the high point of the show was in the opening segment, McMahon going one-on-one with Hodgson. My feeling in retrospect is that there were two people McMahon personally wasn't going to lay down for--Hodgson and Graham. I don't know if Hodgson was honest or not, but he either blitzed McMahon with a well prepared truthful offensive, or simply out-McMahoned McMahon. Hodgson claimed he was fired because he wouldn't sleep with the Vice President. McMahon claimed he was fired because he was a terrible announcer, he couldn't make the transition from radio-to-television. Hodgson made that statement look ridiculous within 30 seconds as he dismantled McMahon with the poise of a 20-year television veteran that even McMahon couldn't match. When McMahon claimed Hodgson's lawyers wanted $160,000 this morning or he'd go on the air, it was clearly last-ditch desperation. When Hodgson denied it and said that ever since he made his charge, McMahon has been trying to buy him out, it resulted is a near standing ovation. Orton and Hankins made their charges, both sounding believable with McMahon really not even trying an offensive against either one.
At that point, the rest of the guests, myself included came on. The show never reached that emotional peak again, although Graham and McMahon got pretty heated at one point. It clearly looked like it was everyone against one person, which would have created some sympathy for McMahon, although the live audience didn't buy his attempts at sincerity. He was clearly the heel and his lack of honesty was pretty well exposed for the entire nation to see. He may not have been the only heel on the show, though. Still, as a television personality, he weathered the storm very well all things considered. Even when Graham got out of control to the point McMahon started getting some sympathy, the crowd still popped for Graham's ranting. The show was over too soon. It accomplished very little. Donahue was a super host. His producers had done their homework and unlike King, he was active and thought provoking and wasn't afraid to put anyone on the spot. If there was a negative, I sensed from the audience that the feeling was that no matter how shocking the story, how heinous the situation, that as long as it involved wrestling, to some people, it just didn't matter because as one girl in the audience said, "it's so sleazy and so gross anyway."
Maybe so. If there is one thing hopefully learned by what took place this week, it is that dishonesty catches up to people in the long run. The results when exposed, from a p.r. standpoint, make the short-term gains from the con seem like nothing. McMahon had gone through personal hell. He seemed to have aged six-to-eight years since the last time I had seen him live, which was only a few months back. Hey, everyone involved in the story had gone through a personal hell. Chris Loss, one of the kids who corroborated Cole's story, by the end of last week had underwent so much media pressure that he didn't want to talk to anyone else and just wanted to get on with his life. McMahon's newspaper quotes about how this hasn't even affected anything nor would it may cover things on the surface, but the reality was a whole lot different. He'd spent nine years creating an empire and had pretty much autonomous control of his industry. He did what he wanted, when he wanted and to who he wanted. Ethics, honesty, even laws, they were for someone else to follow. He didn't always win, but even the losses were usually only minor inconveniences. But this time, right in the midst of some of the strongest business he's done in a long time, the whole thing was in jeopardy. Not a bad PPV buy rate. Not an angle that didn't play well and some weak houses. Not a short-term cash flow problem. The whole thing.