In honor of St. Patrick’s day, I thought I would write this post in green font.  Can’t believe it’s time to hit the bars and get drunk on green beer again (seems like only yesterday I was honoring St. Patrick’s day by blogging about Rosie O’Donnell)  This year, I’m discussing an even more influential Irish American talk show host:  The great Phil Donahue.  

Sadly some of my readers probably don’t even know who he is, having been born after his syndicated talk show was cancelled in 1996, but those of us who are in our 30s are caught between two Worlds: the innocent idyllic childhood of the 20th century when daytime talk shows like Oprah and Donahue dominated the culture, and the fast paced stress filled paranoid World we live in today. 

Growing up in front of a TV set, Donahue, and especially Oprah were like second parents to me.  It was on their shows that I learned about all the major issues of the day.  While talk shows from this period are sometimes dismissed as trash TV, they accelerated social progress in areas like understanding addiction, recovering from sexual abuse and LGBT rights, and while the success of Oprah transformed daytime talk into a huge industry, it was Donahue who pioneered the format of discussing taboo topics and giving regular people in the audience a chance to question the guests.  These shows were the great counter-culture movements of the late 20th century.

Speaking of the 20th century, Phil Donahue (born in 1935) came of age right in the middle of it.  On page 26 his autobiography Donahue: My Own Story, he writes:

In 1953 there were two ways for an Irish Catholic boy to impress his parents, his neighbors and his girlfriend: become a priest or attend Notre Dame.  When my letter of acceptance to N.D. arrived, I framed it and hung it on my bedroom wall, right where Bob Lemon used to be.  In spite of my largely mediocre report card from St. Edward High School, the power brokers within the Holy Cross community of priests and brothers chose to accept all the first graduates from St. Ed’s who expressed interest in Notre Dame.  Both schools are operated by the Holy Cross religious community.  I knew I was lucky then, and as the years pass, and the required S.A.T. scores get higher, and tuition approached $7000 per year, I no longer think of it as luck–rather as divine intervention.

  I don’t know what the average SAT score at Notre Dame was in the early 1950s when Donahue was tested, but in the book The Bell Curve by Herrnstein and Murray, they note that the average verbal SAT at Harvard in 1952 was 583.  Today the average Harvard verbal (reading) score is 750 and the average at Notre Dame is 705 but these are recentred scores.  On the pre-1995 scale, they’d be equivalent to 690 and 645 respectively.

If one assumes that the same 45 point gap existed in the 1950s, the average verbal SAT at Notre Dame around the time Donahue attended was about 538.

Converting these numbers to IQ equivalents is tricky.  A major theme of  The Bell Curve was that elite schools like Harvard and Notre Dame were much less cognitively selective prior to the 1960s.  On pages 29 to 30 they write:

A perusal of Harvard’s Freshman Register for 1952 shows a class looking very much as Harvard’s freshman class has always looked.  Under the photographs of the well-scrubbed, mostly East Coast, overwhelmingly white and Christian young men were home addresses from places like Philadelphia’s Main Line, the Upper East Side of New York, and Boston’s Beacon Hill.  A large proportion of the class came from a handful of America’s most exclusive boarding schools; Phillips Exeter and Phillips Andover alone contributed almost 10 percent of the freshmen that year.

And yet for all its apparent exclusivity, Harvard was not so hard to get into in the fall of 1952.  An applicant’s chance of being admitted were about two of three, and close to 90 percent of his father had gone to Harvard.  With this modest level of competition, it is not surprising to learn that that the Harvard student body was not uniformly brilliant.  In fact the mean SAT-Verbal score of the incoming freshmen class was only 583, well above the national mean but nothing to brag about.  Harvard men came from a range of ability that could be duplicated in the top half of many state universities.

However buried in the footnotes on page 691, they write (highlights are mine):


So if the average Harvard student (SAT-V 583) in the early 50s scored about 1.1 SD higher than the average SAT taker (SAT-V 476), then that implies that the SD (of the SAT population?) was 97.  But how does that equate to the IQ scale where the average American scores 100 (SD = 15). 

Well, if only 6.8% of high school grads took the SAT, and if only 58% of American teens graduated from high school (see table below), then only the 3.9% most academically accomplished were taking the SAT, which implies that the median SAT taker was in the top 2% of academic accomplishment in those days (if taking the SAT can be seen as an accomplishment, since it’s a stepping stone to elite education). 


 Now if the correlation between IQ and academic accomplishment were perfect, this would imply an average IQ 31 points above the U.S. mean, but since the correlation was probably 0.7 in those days (less today) we multiply those 31 points by 0.7, which gives the average SAT taker in the  early 1950s an expected IQ of 121 with a standard deviation of somewhere between 10.7 and the general population SD of 15: let’s split the difference and say 13.

Thus, the SAT populations distribution in 1952 (mean verbal 476, SD = 97) probably equated to IQ 121, SD = 13, on a scale where the average American scores 100 (SD = 15).

From here we can estimate that Notre Dame’s 1952 estimated mean SAT-V of  538 equated to an IQ of 129.

Normally I don’t use SAT scores to estimate the IQs of elite universities because such students are selected based on SATs and thus regress precipitously to the mean on official IQ tests, however prior to the 1960s, SATs were not a major factor in selecting students, so not as much regression would be expected.  Ironically, this may have resulted in the average IQ  (as not measured by the SAT) of elite schools remaining almost the same, even as the average SAT score skyrocketed by the 1960s.

On page 28, Phil Donahue compares himself to a Notre Dame classmate named George, who attended a better high school than he did:

George had graduated from St. Ignatius with honors and had distinguished himself not only in Latin but in Greek as well.  I not only had barely graduated from the “less challenging” St. Ed’s, but from the first freshman “language option” was shuffled off to French and away from the more demanding Latin.  The unspoken axiom had the smart kids in Latin, the dumb kids in French.  George could conjugate verbs allowed–in Latin–much to  the amazement of the first-floor community in Zahm hall, and much to the dismay of “Little Philly,” who was still wondering how he had got there and scared to death that he wasn’t going to survive at “Our Lady’s University.”

So based on Donahue’s refreshingly honest descriptions, it sounds like he was not as smart as the average Notre Dame student in the 1950s (IQ 129), but since he graduated from such a difficult school, he was probably smarter than the average American college grad of his day (about IQ 117).  Let’s split the difference and say his IQ was about 125 (U.S. norms). This makes sense because there’s evidence that Donahue is smarter than fellow Irish-American talk show host Bill O’Reilly (who I’m guessing has an IQ around 113), but less smart than his former rival Oprah (who I suspect is about 140).

Evidence that Donahue is smarter than Bill O’Reilly

Donahue defeated his co-ethnic in this debate about the Iraq war: 


Evidence that Oprah is smarter than Donahue

When Oprah replaced Donahue as the #1 syndicated talk show in America back in 1986, it was generally seen as a battle between a cerebral male and an empathetic female, but those who looked past the style, sometimes noticed Oprah’s emotional advantaged was paired with a cognitive edge. 

Newsday’s Les Payne observed, “Oprah Winfrey is sharper than Donahue, wittier, more genuine, and far better attuned to her audience, if not the world” 

On the other hand, Time magazine considered Donahue the more skilled interviewer, noting “As interviewers go, [Oprah] is no match for, say, Phil Donahue … What she lacks in journalistic toughness, she makes up for in plainspoken curiosity, robust humor and, above all empathy.”