The idea of Oprah Winfrey as a candidate for president is not ridiculous.
For sure, I’d rather get a chance in 2020 to vote for Elizabeth Warren. Or even, say, John Hickenlooper.
But Oprah Winfrey is a serious person of serious accomplishment who demonstrated last weekend at the Golden Globes a firmer grasp of a core skill of political leadership – the art of using narrative to frame and inspire – than Hillary Clinton ever did in her long, stumbling tenure on the national stage.
My friend David Thornburgh, who runs Philadelphia’s good government outfit, the Committee of Seventy (where I get to hang out many days), is someone whose insights I admire. Yesterday at the office, he was spluttering with exasperation at the notion that Oprah – “another celebrity!”, another novice at government – deserves entrance into the sacred circle of the plausibly presidential.
I get what David was lamenting, but I don’t agree with it.
A “celebrity,” as Malcolm Muggeridge once sagely defined the word, is someone who is famous for being famous – without anything of much substance underlying the fame. Donald Trump fit that definition to a T, before he launched his ludicrous, lamentable but historic run for the White House.
Oprah is famous, all right, but it’s because of what she’s accomplished, which is extraordinary. It is unfair, and factually, wrong to lump her into the same “reality star” category as Trump.
First off, what Oprah did for years on “Oprah!” might not have been the stuff of the Oxford debate society, but it wasn’t reality television, either. Reality TV is manipulation masquerading as drama, with results that range from the silly to the depraved – with Trump’s stint leaning hard to the latter side.
While Oprah is going to have to spend some time in purgatory for her deed of inflicting Dr. Oz on the world, her show often as not addressed real human and societal concerns in a sincere way.
And her signature phrase from the show was “You get a car!” Trump’s was, of course, “You’re fired.” Advantage Oprah.
Trump masquerades as a successful tycoon, but Daddy actually launched and rescued his so-called career and, when his business ventures weren’t outright fraudulent, they still leaned to the tasteless.
Oprah started with nothing and became a billionaire on the wings of her smarts, her work ethic and her unerring sense of what the average American needs to know.
Trump famously never reads books. Oprah leveraged her fame to ensure that worthy (well, usually) authors found larger audiences. By dint of her powerful brand alone, she got millions of Americans to read good books they would otherwise never have sampled.
Oprah can act, really well. Trump has an act, a perpetual arabesque of ego of which the saner precincts of the world long ago grew weary.
Trump, hunkered deep inside his thick citadel of narcissism, is constitutionally incapable of feeling or expressing empathy.
Oprah is the Amazon of empathy.
In the New York Times this week, the excellent Frank Bruni made the excellent point that one thing the American voter can be counted on to do every eight years is to change the channel to a very different program. How else to explain an electorate that hadn’t changed dramatically in its demographics gyrating from Bush I to Clinton to Bush II to Obama to Oaf?
So, yes, it probably would be dumb for Democrats to fasten upon “their Trump” as their riposte to the current administration.
But I reject the framing of Oprah as “the liberals’ Trump” simply because she, too, made her fame through television.
She is the businessperson, the entrepreneur, the creative thinker, the heartbeat-taker of American that Donald Trump only pretends to be (albeit convincingly to some).
And her empathy and listening have not just been an act for the cameras. She has taken in the stories of hurt and hope her guests have told, pondered them in her heart, and distilled them into at least some wisdom.
Which she deftly shared with us from that Hollywood stage Sunday night. Name me a single politician in America (other than (sniff!) the one guy who can never be president again) who could been as good on that stage in that moment with that huge audience as Oprah Winfrey was.
She may never have been a practicing politician, but she’s shown many of the skills of a very good one. She may not be wonk’s wonk (that’s what staffs are for), but she’s schooled herself in what hurts and what soars in the lives of Americans.
No, she’s never run a government, but for that matter neither have most of the preening senators who every four years start making excuses to visit Iowa.
She has, unlike many of the politicians who see a future president every time they shave, run a huge enterprise, and a creative one, where success had to be earned through listening, emotional intelligence and collaboration, not just ordering everyone around just because Daddy put you in charge.
In sum, plenty of less prepared presidential hopefuls than Oprah Winfrey have gotten themselves to be taken seriously by the political press – because their ravening egos led them to seek and win political office at least once.
I think she has a lot more to offer America than those dudes.
If she wants to head out to Iowa some day soon, to eat some corn dogs and test the waters, I’m all for it. (But I would recommend that she start working soon on that explanation/apology for Dr. Oz.)
And please, no Cabinet posts for Gayle.