Littwin: Is it wrong to confess that Oprah is not the answer?

First, I’ll make a confession, which is only fitting when discussing Oprah. I have been occasionally guilty of mocking Oprah and her show. Yes, it’s true. It was long ago — back when she was giving away cars or telling us how normal Michael Jackson was or possibly for reasons I may no longer recall — but I regret it sincerely and will never do it again, not even in this column when I call out the absurdity of a proposed Oprah presidential run.

Oprah — who is the Pele of one-name superstars — made a great speech at the Golden Globes, a powerful speech that powerfully met the moment. That she upstaged every celebrity that night isn’t surprising because few, if any, of the Hollywood celebrities can match her star power.

She is famously, and rightfully so, known for her ability to connect to her audience. And with her speech, she reminded us of the power of words and the power of a story that isn’t about the person (OK, man) telling the story, which is something much of the country, according to the polls, keenly misses.

She also predictably got Twitter buzzing, because that’s what Twitter does, but more than that, there were people legitimately close to Oprah who were definitely not shutting down the idea. In fact, friends are now saying she is intrigued by the prospect. This idea is not new. For years, Oprah has been denying that she might run. What’s new is that a desperate country — or maybe just desperate Democrats and also some neverTrumpists like Bill Kristol — seem ready to embrace the one person who is both the anti-Trump and the celebrity answer to Trump. There’s more, of course. Although she’s definitely not the anti-Clinton — Oprah endorsed Clinton in 2016 — she’s clearly the very-public-embrace-of-empathy answer to Clinton.

But. But. But.

A thousand times, but.

I’m not arguing the fact that Oprah wouldn’t be a formidable candidate if she chose to run. It’s the fact that Oprah would be a formidable candidate that is the problem.

While she is hardly an absurd figure, as our current president most certainly is, and while she probably spends little of her days on “executive time,” as our current president does, and while she’s not a demogogue who would play to the nation’s worst instincts, as our current president is, and while she almost certainly knows all the words to the National Anthem and also reads books, that isn’t to say we should now elect someone with no more political or policy experience than Donald Trump to the White House.

What reason is there to think that she would be a good president other than the fact that she is Oprah, the beloved and famous figure who, if she ran, would suddenly become much less beloved and suddenly responsible for every famous word she has ever uttered? (I know. Trump isn’t held responsible for anything he has said, but that’s because Trump is a clownish figure who lies at every turn. Presumably, that’s not the path Oprah would take.)

We have little idea of her positions. We have no idea in what areas she has positions.  What we basically know is that she is a charismatic figure at a time in which charisma (using the term very loosely in the case of Trump) seems to rule.

I know that dismissing Oprah represents old-line thinking, but maybe old-line thinking isn’t so bad. We live in a time in which a gossipy, tell-all book has become the central framework in judging the Trumpian presidency and White House team. Fire and Fury confirms what most of us already assumed, that Trump is, like, completely unfit for the job. As one unsourced White House source memorably tells Wolff: Trump is “an idiot surrounded by clowns.”

Nominating Oprah would be, in effect, to say Democrats will respond to a uniquely unqualified and dangerous-to-the-country billionaire celebrity president (now, according to the Wall Street Journal, apparently considering a targeted strike at North Korea that would deliver a ”bloody nose” but not a bloody response) by nominating a vastly better, almost-certainly-not-dangerous billionaire celebrity candidate who speaks in well-formed sentences and tends not to say, like, like.

The major upside of an Oprah candidacy is that it would drive Donald Trump crazy, or crazier. The stable genius is already facing the looming prospect of being interviewed by Robert Mueller as part of the Russia probe, and now, reading his Twitter feed, he sees his daughter roundly mocked for tweeting: “Just saw @Oprah’s empowering & inspiring speech at last night’s #GoldenGlobes. Let’s all come together, women & men, & say #TIMESUP!”

As Steve Schmidt, the one-time John McCain adviser who ran Arnold Schwarzenegger’s re-election campaign in 2006, put it:  “Oprah is, in fact, a self-made billionaire; Trump pretends to be one. Oprah is an enormous TV star, by orders of magnitude bigger than anything Trump accomplished in that space. And lastly she’s a powerful, smart, beloved African American woman, and Trump seems to have a reflective response towards African Americans and women who he views as threats or are critical of him.”

On other hand, Trump is now saying a race against Oprah would be “a lot of fun.”  He might actually think that, but it’s hardly the point. The critical point in 2020 is not simply to defeat Trump, although that’s vital, but to defeat the idea of Trump, meaning the idea that anyone like him — even a vastly improved version — would ever be president again.


Photo credit: Thomas Hawke, Creative Commons, Flickr 






  1. To me, this very popular idea that bringing in a Washington outsider will miraculously change Washington is delusional. We’ve tried this five times since the late seventies – Carter, Reagan, Clinton, GW Bush, and Trump. Notice the great improvements the brought to you life? Clinton, at least was bright enough to bring in some good people, but also some bad ones (hint: they relaxed financial rules for Wall Street). If you want to implement changes in Washington, choose an insider who has demonstrated ethics, leadership skills, and has knowledge of how things work in Washington and around the world. John Kerry is one such individual who comes to mind.

  2. Agreed, Mr. Littwin.

    Politics may be blood-sport but to get good at the “sport” part of it you need years of practice. Every pro athlete has lived that experience as well as every successful politician – they had to learn and understand their profession before they could perform at the highest levels.

    Note that I define successful in this case as meaning TRULY serving their constituents, which is job 1 for a politician. The most important thing a politician must to do is to improve the lives of their people, especially those on the lower end of the economic rungs of the ladder. To be able to change those lives for the better is not an easy task. It takes a person with a passion to help people, not help themselves.

    For all those reasons it would be dangerous to promote another “rookie” who has no track record nor displayed any of the traits and temperament required of a politician, a statesman and the most important and powerful leader in the world.

    We need to return to that type of candidate for POTUS; not a power-hungry celebrity who will do nothing for us normal folks.

  3. Au contraire, Mike. Electing politically engaged celebrities is old hat — see Reagan, Ronald, and Schwartzenegger, Arnold for examples, so that argument doesn’t work.

    While the implied threat you speak of is that we will forevermore only elect leaders on the basis of personality cults, I believe, should Oprah actually have political ambitions, she would serve as the perfect antidote to the poison the GOP and Trump in particular have injected into politics today.

    You can imagine if Hillary had won, the impeachment circus and total government paralysis we would be facing today.

    Oprah, in particular, might have the potential to dissolve the venom eating away at our democracy and open the way for a return to normalcy, healing the wounded soul of our nation.

    Then perhaps regular politicians will remember they are there to serve their constituents, not just take advantage of them.

  4. Harry, thanks for the note. I’d say this in reply. Reagan, for better or worse (I’d say worse), was a two-term governor of California before becoming president. And Schwarzenegger, who had no experience, left office with a 23% approval rating.

  5. I’m uncertain of my choices, based on celebrities and other “outsiders” against the politicians and other “insiders” running for office and those who actually win and need to do something.

    For every “insider” who gets honorable mention, there seems to be a Richard Nixon, the insider’s insider, who shows that dangers don’t merely arise from incompetence. For every “outsider” considered tolerable or successful (one-term Representative and failed Senate candidate Lincoln comes to mind), there are a fair number who once elected we have come to regret and if not elected, we celebrate the wisdom of “the people.”

    Perhaps we should be looking a bit differently. Trying to find indications of a commitment to public service; of a willingness to consider opponents; of a preference for accomplishments of a nation rather than accomplishments of themselves; of a history of good choices in both policies considered (of whatever field they were in) and people they choose to associate with. And finally, a willingness to recognize mistakes, take responsibility for them, and intelligently and diligently pursue alternatives to address the initial problem that sparked their choice AND the problems created by their initially chosen solution.

  6. Good points, Mike. Both Reagan and Schwarzenegger left their respective constituencies much the worse for wear. And perhaps the successful return of Jerry Brown as governor of California is the perfect example to prove your point about old-line thinking.

    Let’s just say I’m open to the “idea” of Oprah running (subject to her interest, and of course her positions on the issues and vision for the country’s future) simply because the President of the United States is automatically a celebrity, if not before — and certainly after, given the office’s bestowal of the (so far mostly intact) position as World Leader.

    Re-reading your litany of Oprah’s known characteristics — literate, eloquent, empathetic, accomplished — it seems evident that she is qualified in the leadership part of the job. The question, as it is for any non-politician candidate, is would she have the patience and wisdom to handle the day-to-day drudgery of running a massive bureaucracy. I suspect she could attract and manage the experienced talent required to actually govern the nation.

    I guess we’ll find out in a couple years who we will have to choose among. I can only pray that not only do the voters choose wisely, but that the Electoral College agrees.

  7. With so many national sources covering this story wouldn’t the Colorado Independent be of more value to Colorado if it covered local news?

  8. Well let’s see…the last two tv personalities Republicans have dressed up as politicians to take advantage of the gullibility of nearly half the country, were and are abject failures, actively transforming the Republic for Which It Stands into something that the vast majority of voters do not support.

    I’m not sure that Democrats should consider emulating those horrific decisions as the cure for what ails them.

    Wonkish, intellectually honest public servants seem to be a much better fit for the voters in this country…considering they keep getting the support of the majority of voters…election “results” aside.

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