Identity

The Feud That Made Her Leave 'The View': Was America Too Hard on Rosie?

Memed into history, the split-screen face-off between O'Donnell and conservative pundit Elisabeth Hasselbeck over the Iraq War captures a time when it wasn't trendy for celebrities to oppose the President.
May 23, 2017, 6:10pm
Photo by Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic

This Week in 2007 is a weekly column looking back on Lindsay Lohan, the first iPhone, George W. Bush, and everything else we loved about the year 2007.

Denouncing President Donald Trump's Republican administration is to 2017 what the red Kabbalah bracelet was to 2007. It's the latest trendy celebrity fashion statement. Opposing government policies and conservatives, though, wasn't always a solid career move. Just ask Rosie O'Donnell.

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During her one-year stint on The View, she questioned if the US government had staged the 9/11 attacks, attacked the Catholic Church, and criticized then-President George W. Bush's motives behind the Iraq War. She seemed petty warring with The Apprentice host Donald Trump, but her critique is prescient today: "He's the moral majority?" she asked. "[He] left the first wife, had an affair, left the second wife, had an affair."

All her tirades alienated the media and special interest groups, but the biggest debacle occurred 10 years ago today, when she battled co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck over the Iraq War. Instead of breaking for commercial, producers displayed the argument in a tawdry split screen. Rosie predicted during the argument, "Here's how it [will get] spun in the media: 'Big, fat, lesbian, loud Rosie attacks innocent, pure, Christian Elisabeth.'" Later that day, the Los Angeles Times roared "Rosie vs. Elisabeth: The Gloves Are Off!"

Rosie was right. Her fight became one of the (if not, the most) infamous talk show feuds of all time. Sensational in 2007, Rosie's war of words looks brave—and underrated—in retrospect.

Read more: How 2007 Became a Meme

Today, Americans picture Rosie as a loud, furious contrarian, the Loch Ness Monster of Long Island, and Elisabeth as a problematic ex-Fox News bimbo. But in 2007, the latter was a reality TV sweetheart-turned-Christian talk show ingenue (The View creator Barbara Walters had plucked her from Survivor), while Rosie was the Britney Spears of daytime television.

When she joined The View in 2006 after a four-year break from daytime talk, viewers expected "the queen of nice," the persona she had developed on her eponymous 1990s talk show. Audiences knew Rosie for promoting family-friendly Broadway shows, like Elton John and Disney's Aida, and demurring risky subjects (like Eyes Wide Shut) during interviews with her "celebrity crush" Tom Cruise.

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Instead, Rosie served audiences with diatribes against the Republican party, which generated op-eds like the Los Angeles Times' "The 'Queen of Nice' Goes Nuts."

Mocking conservatives could ruin a celebrity's career during the Bush years. Country radio never welcomed back the Dixie Chicks after lead singer Natalie Maines said, "We're ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas." Even Madonna, the only pop star excommunicated from the Catholic Church, cancelled her anti-Iraq War "American Life" music video over fear of boycotts.

The potential for career implosion made Rosie's statements riveting, but viewers also rarely saw a celebrity giving her honest opinion. Ratings grew 17 percent during her year-long View tenure.

Photo via Flickr user mbgrigby

Battered, Rosie decided to quit after one season; she would finish out the year and then relax. She was especially incensed after Elisabeth refused to defend her when conservative pundits berated Rosie for saying, "655,000 Iraqis are dead. Who are the terrorists?"

Rosie looked exhausted on May 23, 2007, when she quietly stared at Elisabeth as she complained about Joy Behar's list of reasons to impeach Bush. ("He choked on a pretzel!") One could see why conservative spectators defended Elisabeth: She wore a saggy maternity dress, while Rosie donned a masculine, white blazer.

Rosie remained still for roughly five minutes, until Elisabeth called an Iraq War withdrawal plan the equivalent of giving "your enemies" your battle plan.

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"The enemies in Iraq?" Rosie asked.

"Al Qaeda!" Elisabeth barked. She elaborated, comparing withdrawal from the Iraq war to a football team telling their opponents about their plays.

"If the enemies are innocent civilians, I don't want to play that kind of football," Rosie declared. "Iraq didn't attack us!" The media would spin their debate as Rosie sabotaging Elisabeth.

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When Rosie confronted Elisabeth, asking why she allowed conservative pundits to misconstrue her words, things got heated; the two called each other cowards and their co-hosts Sherri and Joy eventually pleaded for a commercial break.

"I was asking if you, who actually knows me, do you believe I think our troops are terrorists, Elisabeth?" Rosie asked. "Do you believe that, yes or no?"

"Excuse me. Let me speak," Elisabeth began.

"You're going to doublespeak," Rosie responded. "It's just a yes or a no."

"I am not a double speaker, and I don't put suggestions out there that lead people to think things and then not answer my own question, OK?" Elisabeth said. "I don't believe that you believe troops are terrorists. I have said that before. But when you say something like 650,000 Iraqis are dead, we invaded them…"

"It's true!" Rosie retorted.

"Let me finish!" Elisabeth said.

"You don't like facts!" Rosie shot back.

"I am all about facts. You know that. You tell me not to use facts because you want me to go only on emotion. Guess what? I like facts."

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The daytime war went on. Joy and Sherri tried to calm their co-hosts. At one point, the two stood up, pretending to leave. Joy suggested, "Let's go to commercial," but Rosie shot her down. It wasn't time; she was going to make her point. Plus, producers recognized the fight as television gold—they cut to split-screen.

"Every day since September, I have told you that I support the troops," Rosie lamented. "I asked you if you believed what the Republican pundits were saying. You said nothing, and that's cowardly." Elisabeth urged Rosie to stop calling her a coward, but she refused. "It was cowardly," Rosie repeated.

"It was not cowardly, it was honest," she responded.

Elisabeth was wrong, though. She had refrained from defending her "friend," while Rosie took the fall for being courageous. Rosie was right, but in the mid-2000s, the media and general public disapproved of celebrities questioning the war. Rosie's decision damaged her reputation forever. She refused to return to the show, but has remained frozen in split screen. (Hence, The View bringing her back in 2014 after ratings fell.) Rosie summed up her feelings in a poem she published on her blog in May 2007:

"it may be time
to be done
endings r hard 4 all
emotions r high
talking is tough"

No wonder most celebrities keep their mouths shut.