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.