Christine O'Donnell and Me

In normal times, it would be hard to believe that a religious fundamentalist like O'Donnell could be a major party nominee. But with the rise of Palin and Beck above their hordes of energized followers, these are clearly not normal times.
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I knew Christine O'Donnell as an ideologue of uptightness -- with a fervent position on every issue under the sun. I saw her up close when we debated during one of her several Phil Donahue show appearances in 2002-03 on MSNBC, where I worked as an on-air contributor and Donahue senior producer.

Like Sarah Palin, O'Donnell has that dangerous mix of arrogance and ignorance. Years before there was a Tea Party to put her in orbit, O'Donnell was already adept at blending paranoia about Democrats with blind faith in religious and market fundamentalism.

But even in the dark days of Bushmania eight years ago, I could not have foreseen this foe of masturbation and friend of for-profit health care as a serious U.S. senate contender.

During a Donahue discussion on the rumor that Bill Clinton might host a syndicated daytime TV talk show, O'Donnell's opposition went beyond her complaint that it's "so undignified":

O'DONNELL: One reason I care is because it's also a threat to our national security.

DONAHUE: How's that?

O'DONNELL: You mentioned what is he going to do when the ratings start to fall? Well, he's got access to classified information that Anna Nicole Smith [then hosting a TV show] does not... So do you really think the networks are going to sacrifice ratings for the sake of not revealing information that he has?

After acknowledging that she "would certainly be a guest" on a Clinton talk show, O'Donnell repeated her fear about "this classified data that he will have access to and that he will bring to the discussion." It was so embarrassing that a fellow guest critical of a Clinton show had to chime in: "He's not going to reveal state secrets on the show!"

In our joint appearance on Donahue in November 2002, a panel debated big and small news, including the Michael Jackson baby-dangling incident. "Perhaps one thing they can do is revoke his passport," she said, suggesting a Big Government approach.

Ironically, given the state of her race today, she expressed hope that Al Gore would be the 2004 Democratic nominee because he was somehow unelectable in the general election: "So let him be your front man, Democratic Party. And you guys will lose for sure."

O'Donnell was a Tea Party candidate way before the party started -- with a faux-populism quick to defend corporate interests. Years before the battle over Obamacare, she was already steeped in obstruction and fear of change.

O'DONNELL: And why do we want universal health care?

COHEN: I guess you're not one of the 40 million people that has no health insurance, are you?

O'DONNELL: Because -- No, actually I don't have health insurance right now.

COHEN: And you think that's a good thing?

O'DONNELL: I pay out of my own pocket right now.

COHEN: We're the only advanced industrial country that does not have health care.

O'DONNELL: Let me tell you. I would rather pay out of my own pocket than have to wait two hours for some shoddy doctor to give me a misdiagnosis... And pay more than half my wages in taxes to cover this. It's ridiculous.

COHEN: We're the wealthiest country in the world, and we've got 40 million people without health insurance. There's no advanced industrial country that has that.

O'DONNELL: And throwing money into something like is not going to help.

When she appeared on Donahue's show, O'Donnell represented The Savior's Alliance for Lifting the Truth (SALT) -- the youth group opposing pre-marital sex and intra-marital masturbation that she was apparently still associated with last year. On one episode, she repeatedly equated nudity with pornography.

On another show, she belittled an obesity suit against McDonald's as frivolous ("what I want to know is, did the lawyer go to her or did she go to the lawyer?"), but O'Donnell famously and somewhat capriciously sued a right-wing nonprofit ex-employer for $6.9 million for wrongful termination.

In normal times, it would be hard to believe that a religious fundamentalist like Christine O'Donnell could be a triumphant major party nominee for U.S. senate. But with the rise of Palin and Beck above their hordes of fearful and energized followers, these are clearly not normal times.

Jeff Cohen is the author of Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media.

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