ABC announced today that Rosie O’Donnell, controversial co-host of “The View,” has permanently left the show three weeks earlier than planned, following a surpremely uncomfortable argument with her co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck on Wednesday. O’Donnell’s upcoming departure had already been announced, and attributed to contract negotiations failing, but her often-combative presence on the show was clearly troublesome as well. On Thursday, co-host and producer Barbara Walters announced O’Donnell wouldn’t be joining the show that day since it was “her partner Kelly’s birthday;” today’s announcement just stated she had now requested an “early leave.”
It’s difficult to sort out the competing sentiments about this. First of all, “The View” has always been an eminently mockable show, with Walters presiding over her brood like a demented queen, and interviews seeming more like four-on-one attacks. On the other hand, its freewheeling format gave the hosts a platform rarely available to women on network television. O’Donnell herself brings up mixed feelings: her comedy has often been hilarious, but staying closeted on her talk show now seems kind of hypocritical; and while her gay-families cruise and subsequent film are admirable, otherwise her post-coming-out career has seemed hysterical and unhinged.
Bringing her on board “The View” was a brilliant move, ratings-wise, by Walters, but whether it was good television is hard to say. O’Donnell’s outspoken insistence on bringing up serious topics often made the show riveting, but her inability to focus or sort out facts from conspiracy theories was infuriating. Oddly, she seemed perfectly matched with the ditsy, conservative Hasselbeck, who parrots Fox News slogans like a cheerleader. Their argument on Wednesday seemed symbolic – it was difficult to follow (something about whether Hasselbeck believed the apparent misinterpretations by conservative pundits of an earlier anti-war statement by O’Donnell), but contained in its blurted accusations the pain and confusion of a nation torn apart by a foolish war and an all-too-recent terrorist attack:
“I asked you if you believed what the Republican pundits were saying,” O’Donnell said to Hasselbeck.
“Did I say yes?” Hasselbeck replied.
“You said nothing and that’s cowardly,” O’Donnell shot back.
“No, no, no. Do not call me a coward because I sit here every single day, open my heart and tell people exactly what I believe,” Hasselbeck shouted
“So do I,” retorted O’Donnell.
What’s this argument about? Who’s a coward? The one who didn’t speak up when partisans made false accusations, or the one who won’t stand by a statement that appeared to call our guys the bad guys? Of course, the right wing’s continual attempts to portray criticism of the war as “anti-troops” is despicable, but O’Donnell stumbles right into it. I don’t know if there’s cowardice here, but there’s fear everywhere: fear of being on the wrong side, fear of being unpatriotic, fear of being weak, fear of being misunderstood, fear for the future. The co-hosts’ inability to extract the political from the personal isn’t so much a failure on their part, as it is endemic to the issue at hand: our beliefs about Bush and the war and 9/11 are so inextricably linked to who we are, that any argument immediately becomes about our relationship, our personhood.
The audience to this exchange was reportedly uncomfortable (as were the co-hosts, who tried to go to a commercial), and so am I, watching it on YouTube. I want to scream at both of them to stop being so foolish and fearful, and I just want the argument to go away. But, really, because their argument picks at all edges of the scar on America’s psyche, it may be one of the most compelling – and real – moments of television this year. O’Donnell and Hasselbeck are, for better or for worse, America: short on facts, terrified of saying anything negative about “the troops,” trying to be friends, but locked in a spiral of offense and anger, and deep down inside, baffled by each other. I can’t say I felt like O’Donnell was a good spokesperson for gays, liberals, women, or anyone, and I don’t know if her aiming the show’s discussions at politics actually helped anything. But, to paraphrase John Mellencamp: it sure was something to see, and ain’t that America.