The Case for Oprah
On Sunday morning, “Oprah for President” was the punchline of a joke. By Sunday night, it was a remote possibility. By Monday, it felt weirdly plausible. Things move fast in American politics.
Everyone knows Oprah. So when she took the stage at the Golden Globe Awards to accept the Cecil B. de Mille Award she hardly needed an introduction.
Then her speech. It’s been a while since we’ve heard soaring oratory, compelling narrative, and inspiring provocation eloquently delivered in a way that felt like she was talking only to you. That’s what communication mastery looks like. Our brains are exhausted from trying to decipher the incoherent ramblings of an amoral and malevolent school boy. Oprah’s words were a soothing balm on our traumatized ears.
But it was no feel-good speech – it was morally substantive, courageous, visionary, and damn it, she made it sound doable – like we really could build a world that works for everyone, where people would be respected, and trusted, and safe, and celebrated, and loved. I believed her. And that felt good.
We got to know Oprah as a talk show host. Coming out of the Chicago market and mentored by daytime TV veteran Phil Donahue, she quickly rose to the top. Every afternoon she filled American homes with conversation, much of it difficult and substantive. She showed us that the way to deal with pain was not to push it down and deny it but bring it out into the light and talk about it. Her show was about healing wounds, both seen and unseen. No one had ever done television like that before. Imagine bringing that kind of energy to the White House, to vexing issues like institutional racism, income inequality, mass incarceration, sexual violence and abuse, poverty, and access to health care. Imagine if we began by hearing each other’s pain. Really hearing.
An entire generation of Americans grew up with her. In meaningful ways, she’s America’s mom. The kind of mom you actually wanted – honest, funny, available, strong, and fierce in her defense of the vulnerable and injured. Oprah made stuff happen. She pulled the rabbit out of the hat. A car for you! And a car for you! And a car for you!
This week, all over social and traditional media, the discussion is passionate and heated, pro and con. Would Oprah make a good presidential candidate? The biggest complaint people have against Oprah running for President sounds something like this: “We don’t need another celebrity, a political neophyte with no governmental or policy experience.” And that’s just from Democrats. You should hear the people on the right. They’re losing their ever-loving minds. They see Oprah as the antichrist; the “Queen of Babylon” as one pundit put it. The very embodiment of the venality of the Hollywood elite.
Let’s take another look. What is a President anyway? What and who do we need a President to be? What are the qualities of excellence in leadership?
First of all, she’s not “Hollywood.” Whatever that even means. And it doesn’t mean much. Using “Hollywood” as a sneer is a right wing trope. Hollywood, like any other company town, is a working class community. Nearly everyone there works in the entertainment industry in some way, shape, or form. But nearly all of them are middle class. They live in normal houses and drive Honda Civics. Sure, our eyes go to the glitterati, but that’s not the real story. And besides, Oprah doesn’t even live there or work there. She rose to prominence not as an actor portraying somebody else, but as herself.
Sure, Quincy Jones recommended her to Steven Spielberg for that role in The Color Purple, and she ended up bagging an Oscar. More evidence that she’s a quick study and pretty good at trying new things.
The one theme that runs through her work is empathy – she always makes the story about you, never about her. Is that not a laudable quality in a leader? She cuts across all ethnic and class barriers by working to alleviate suffering and bring insight into ignorance. Does that not qualify her as a uniter and healer? She rallies people around the possibility of self-improvement, both as individuals and as a society. And is that not the most important quality of leadership of all – to call others to their own highest potential? She’s also very obviously thoughtful, studious, and hard-working. If she doesn’t understand something, she asks questions. She reads. She reaches out to the best and brightest and opens her mind. Imagine that.
As Andy Borowitz recently observed, America’s love of celebrities is nothing new, and it certainly isn’t the product of the modern media landscape. In the past, generals were celebrities, like George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and Ulysses S. Grant. Some of them made great presidents, others not so much. In the age of movies, Ronald Reagan was a celebrity. In the age of television, Donald Trump is a celebrity. In election politics throughout human history, famous people rise to prominence and get elected to office. This should not surprise us. Nor is it automatically a bad thing.
I don’t know if Oprah is running. Or if I’d even support her if she did. But take a good look at her work product, her executive talent, and her personal qualities and attributes. She has a great deal of experience building and holding together global organizations. She creates and runs successful teams. She inspires excellence in others. She delegates. And she’s not in it for herself. She doesn’t need to be more famous or more rich. Been there, done that. Now it’s about dharma, or service.
And, in Donald Trump’s favorite measure, she wins.