By Lisa de Moraes
Thursday, September 30, 2004; Page C07
Daytime talk show hosts live in an alternate universe in which everything revolves around them.
How else can you explain the decision of Phil McGraw, aka "Dr. Phil," to begin his interview with the president of the United States, leader of the free world (which, come to think of it, maybe isn't so big considering how much of it isn't speaking to us), in the following manner:
"Thanks so much for having us in to your beautiful home. I'm really committed to putting family back in America. I think that's what you have put in the White House. I think it's what we need to put back in America and I'm devoting so much of my third season to 'family first,' what I call 'family first,' and putting it back together. In preparation for a book that I've done, I've conducted a survey of 20,000 parents and asked them all the questions I could about parenting. I was shocked at one thing: Forty percent of them said, 'If I knew then what I know now, I probably wouldn't have started a family.' "
So how does the president of the United States respond to an opening "question" like that?
Bush did not elaborate as to whether "shocking" was a reference to the fact that so many parents wished they'd used birth control, or reaction to a TV talk show hack using the president of the United States as a prop while delivering a big fat plug for his syndicated television show and upcoming book.
It was one of few times yesterday over the course of the hour, taped in July at the Bushes' Texas ranch, that the first lady allowed her husband first crack at a question. Mostly she rushed right in, leaving the president to provide an echo.
It went something like this:
Dr. Phil, getting back to the survey, conducted for his new book: "Why do you suppose [parents] would feel that way in America?"
Mrs. Bush: "Because relationships are difficult. They are. And certainly, you know, parenting and the parent-child relationship can be really difficult. But I feel like it's the biggest blessing that we have on Earth, to have children and to be able to love children."
President of the United States: "That is an amazing statistic."
With that settled, Dr. Phil then began to elaborate on his views about child-rearing:
"My belief is that you're not the only influence in your children's life."
First lady: "Mm-hmm."
Dr. Phil: "So you'd better be the best influence in your children's life."
First lady: "Mm-hmmm."
Dr. Phil: "You know, they're listening to television, they're -- all of the messages that are out there. You've got to counterbalance that. And I think one of the things that I worry about with education is we teach people how to read and write and add and subtract, but we don't teach them how to be moms and dads."
President of the United States: "Yeah."
Plowing through his list of "questions," Dr. Phil next wanted to know, "When you were raising your girls through the busy time, did you have a definition of success? Did you say, 'Okay, for these two girls, what is an absolutely out-of-the-park home run? This is what we're shooting for. This is what we want?' Did you all have that in mind when you were raising them?"
First lady: "I wouldn't say we had that -- "
President of the United States: "Not at all."
First lady: " -- formally in mind. You know, we wanted them to be happy. Wanted them to be successful."
Dr. Phil's wife, Robin, was there too, providing the illusion that this was not an interview, but a visit by a couple into the home of the president of the United States. She also made her own observations.
For instance, the president of the United States is exactly like Dr. Phil, her husband.
It's true. They're both "ornery." We have it straight from Mrs. Dr. Phil.
A couple of commercial breaks later, the president noted that "no one adequately warned us what it was like to be a parent of a teenager," sounding alarmingly like one of those 40 percent of respondents to Dr. Phil's Pre-Book Survey. Sensing danger, Dr. Phil jumped right in with advice for the First Couple:
"I think what parents have to do is say, "All right, what am I about here? I'm about socializing this child. I have to teach them what we stand for.' My dad used to say, 'If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything..' "
"You'll fall for anything," added the first lady.
We think this was just an unkind thing to say to a man who told America that he believed there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Dr. Phil soldiered on with his advice: You've got to teach them to love themselves.
First lady: "Mm-hmmm."
Dr. Phil: "And to feel love. To me, with our boys, we've said we have hit the home run ball if we can get Jay to discover his authentic self."
First lady, whose eyes appear to be glazing over: "Mm-hmmm."
Dr. Phil: "What's his gift? What's his skill?"
First lady, presumably having no idea what Dr. Phil's son's gift is, played it safe: "Mm-hmmm."
President of the United States, picking up on his wife's lead: "Yeah."
Dr. Phil: "What's his talent? And embrace that, whatever it is . . . and the same way with Jordan. And do you think Jenna and Barbara know who they are and -- "
First lady, recognizing that this is an actual question she can answer, interrupts Dr. Phil: "Yes I think they definitely are -- "
Dr. Phil, realizing he's made the mistake of asking an actual question, giving the first lady the opportunity to interrupt him, interrupts her: "What they're intended to be in this life? Their gifts and skills that God has given them?"
First lady: "That's right. I think they are."
She went on to explain that they intuitively knew what their daughters were good at, adding that once they bought Barbara a sewing machine for Christmas because they realized she had "fine motor skills" and though they never talked about the sewing machine and didn't tell her to go to her room and use the sewing machine, she did in fact use the sewing machine.
And right about now this viewer was praying that Dr. Phil would start jumping up and down and screaming:
You get a car!
You get a car!
You get a car!
Alas, that did not happen. On the other hand, we did get to see yet another president of the United States take a question that included the words "oral sex."
Dr. Phil: "If there was something you could say to the parents of America to give them the strength to hang in and go on; we've got epidemic levels of oral sex in the middle schools, we've got alcohol and 40 percent of eighth graders say they have access to drugs and alcohol if they want it. You used to go to the bad part of town, buy drugs on the corner; you get them now on the Internet with Mom sitting at the kitchen table with you and not knowing what you're doing. There are so many struggles. What we're hearing in music today, all of these things. So many parents don't know that there's a radio version and a non-radio version of some of this music. The first time I popped in one of those CDs that I'd heard on TV, it was just astounding . . . so what do you -- what's the advice you give them to hang on?"
There was just no way the first lady was going to let her husband answer a question that had the phrase "oral sex" in it and she jumped right in.
"I think that's the really hard part of parenting now and that is, how can you plan your life so that your children have the strength to make the right choices and to not choose the drugs or the alcohol?" she said.
Despite her best efforts, the president did take a whack at the question, noting that when he ran for governor of Texas in 1994, "one of the issues that I campaigned on . . . we were going to go after deadbeat dads and to make sure that they complied with their responsibility as a father, we were going to suspend their hunting and fishing licenses in the state of Texas."