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Oprah No

If celebrity must continue, it must not be in Presidencies, anywhere

Before she declined febrile suggestions that she run the US presidency on the grounds that she does not “have the DNA for it” Oprah Winfrey, the nation’s mother was attracting a great deal of serious political and media attention.

Ireland has tried its hand at Dana, Gay Byrne and Sean Gallagher and may see some future with Miriam O’Callaghan. But Oprah is the ne plus ultra of celebrity in the land that invented it.

Her tough-minded speech at the Golden Globes highlighted her potential as erasure of fellow television personality, President Trump who ironically had joked, innocent decades ago, that Oprah would be his “first choice” for vice president if, counterfactually as it could only be, he ever became President.

Now it is said, in our uninnocent time, that the possibility of a Winfrey campaign could unite a divided nation.

“I want her to run for president”,the ever wholesome, ever progressive Meryl Streep told The Washington Post just after the Globes. “I don’t think she had any intention [of declaring]. But now she doesn’t have a choice. It was a barnburner. She runs a major company. She could lead the country. Instead of leading the country down”.

Bill Kristol, doyen of respectable mad neoconservatism and the original promoter of Sarah Palin, tweeted “Oprah. #ImWithHer…Understands Middle America better than Elizabeth Warren. Less touchy-feely than Joe Biden, more pleasant than Andrew Cuomo, more charismatic than John Hickenlooper”, he declared, almost incontrovertibly.

Not a good start, it all derives from a joke. Golden Globes host Seth Meyers mentioned his 2011 White House correspondents’ dinner gig, where he had plausibly joshed that Donald Trump wasn’t qualified for the presidency.

“Some have said that night convinced him to run. So, if that’s true, I just want to say: Oprah, you will never be president! You do not have what it takes. And Hanks! Where’s Hanks? You will never be vice president. You are too mean and unrelatable. Now we just wait and see”.

Winfrey tittered. But an hour later, she gripped the luvvies and their world with a roustabout call to action. “I want all the girls watching here and now to know that a new day is on the horizon”.

Winfrey’s longtime partner, Stedman Graham who would know, later told the Los Angeles Times that “it’s up to the people. She would absolutely do it”.

And when the Los Angeles Times told Winfrey herself that “the Internet is saying Oprah for president in 2020”, Winfrey responded. “I’m just glad I got through the speech! I thought a lot about it. I wanted this to be a meaningful moment”. But would she consider a 2020 presidential run? “Okaay!” she reportedly responded souciantly. It was the okay that launched a thousand opinion pieces, a thousand and one.

“Yes, we can! Am I the only one who had that feeling? It feels like Oprah 2020”, gushed ‘The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah. It has been typical.

It wasn’t an accident. In a March 2017 interview, Bloomberg TV’s David Rubenstein had asked Winfrey about her 2020 plans. And, doggone, she has 2020 plans.

“I never considered the question even a possibility,” she said decorously, before adding, “I just thought, ‘Oh … oh?’”.

Let’s be clear in the interests of good governance, this was “Oh…oh?” not “Oh Oh!”.

Rubenstein then pointed out unhelpfully that “it’s clear you don’t need government experience to be elected president of the United States”.

“That’s what I thought”, Winfrey said ruminatingly. “I thought, ‘Oh gee, I don’t have the experience, I don’t know enough’. And now I’m thinking, ‘Oh’”. But this inchoate inarticulacy is also arrogant.

Republican consultant Ana Navarro explicates this perspective:

“Are we really asking ourselves whether a political neophyte, billionaire, media-savvy TV star can become president? America answered that already. I don’t know how much she knows about foreign policy or some domestic policy issues. But hell, it’s not like she’d be running against Churchill. She’d be running against Trump”.

But if you could have Churchill you’d take him without a sidewards glance (actually you mightn’t rush to choose Churchill but that’s not really the point here). There is an elementary flaw in the logic.

What would we do if Oprah ran and then someone less celebrated but more ideological, and with a lifetime commitment to appropriate policy ran? What would we do if Bernie Sanders ran again, buoyed by a resurgent radical wing of the Democrat Party?

Serious progressives would feel they’d let themselves down with the shiny diversion.

Trump doesn’t have the seriousness of purpose to be President but nor does Winfrey. Trump being exposed the way he has been – as wrong, dangerous, life-and-welfare threatening, mad – doesn’t mean billionaire Oprah is qualified to take on the job of the world’s most powerful politician. In reality the Trump circus shows that celebrity and alleged acumen aren’t enough. The main difference between Trump and Winfrey is that he is sociopathic and she is comprehensively empathetic. But who said empathy was the key qualification for the Presidency? It is political judgement. And Oprah’s is totally untested. For example there is no evidence she is willing to do anything that might risk making her unpopular, ‘unempathetic’. Empathy is her essence and her selling point.

Republican strategist Rick Wilson, an antiTrump diehard, put it succinctly: “Arguably Donald Trump is the most famous man in the world. Maybe you can only beat a celebrity with another celebrity”.

Perhaps the best way to political office is to appeal with music, art, chat-showery, and then collect votes. But surely this demeans the intrinsic value of some of these media. Not everybody awaits beyond all else their first blast of fame viewing it as a vehicle to wealth and power. Integrity is about how one deals with the task in hand, not how one manipulates one’s way to bigger or better tasks, and rewards.

Indeed it’s not so long ago that John McCain’s most effective attack ad against the insurgent Barack Obama was called “Celebrity” which associated him with Paris Hilton: famous but lightweight and underqualified for the Presidency. Bimbos like Dan Quale risk the put-downs of people of substance as during the 1988 United States vice-presidential debatewhen his efforts to establish parallels with JFK led Democratic vice-presidential candidate Senator Lloyd Bentsen to the lethal disparagement: “I knew Jack Kennedy; Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator you’re no Jack Kennedy”.

Certainly Abraham Lincoln was famously thrown in at the deep end. He had no formal education and only lasted a single term in the US House of Representatives. Ironically, he was offered the Governorship of Oregon and turned it down to work as a lawyer in Illinois. Most of his political and leadership experience came as an Illinois state representative. He had been briefly active in the Illinois militia but was considered a mediocre officer. Lincoln made it to the Presidency thanks to his public-speaking skills and an unprecedented four-candidate election in 1860.

The difference was Lincoln was no qualifications all substance; celebrities are by definition famous for their lack of substance. It is what earns them the title.

Also we don’t know if she’s taken care to avoid generating dirt, or indeed if she can take flak.

A recent piece by Dan Zak and Monica Hesse in the Washington Post asks:

“Would conservatives and the Trump White House seize on the more suspicious chapters of her career, like her promotion of controversial TV Doctors Phil and Oz, or her endorsement of the 2006 self-help book ‘The Secret’ which convinced millions of people that they could be rich by just wishing hard enough for it?”. Oprah is a zealous spreader of junk science. More topically, as soon as she finished her speech, Twitter lit up with photos of Winfrey cosying up to disgraced movie producer Harvey Weinstein.

Celebrities discussing the future, 1988

This assumes that Trump’s win wasn’t entirely unaccidental, and that he was invincible. But that’s wrong too. Trump did not even win the popular vote in contention with a morally-tainted opponent in Hillary Clinton, and his approval ratings are now the worst ever. One anomaly doesn’t make a template. Imagine if Oprah were to run and win how the pundits would say celebrity was the ineluctable minimum. But the same pundits said that being a scion of an established political family (Bush or Clinton) made a candidate unassailable but now that’s actually toxic – ask Jeb or Hillary how it played for them.

The President’s responsibilities are not only vast, but immensely complicated and technical. As head of the Executive Branch, the responsibility extends to 15 executive departments and over 2 million federal employees.

“Oprah may well believe she can do far more good outside of politics, where she has done so much good for so long”.

Ben Smith, BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief writes, in ‘The Case Against President Oprah’:

“But Democrats don’t want to improve on Trump. They want to reverse him. And that’s where governors and senators with deep experience, proven political chops, and an unglamorous sense of normalcy come in”.

The overriding argument against Oprah is Trump and the celebrity after her.

“Can we let celebrities just be celebrities?”, writes Eve Peyser at Vice. Well, ideally no. But certainly let’s keep Presidencies for the Presidential.

Why not reverse it and have Presidents become celebrities, after they’ve been president so they can transfuse some ideological nous into prime time talent contests?

Or maybe just ban celebrities from becoming President, on grounds that the act of attaining and sustaining celebrity is trivial and corrosive, make voters swear an oath to vote, in the public interest, for someone who will uphold that interest.

Or perhaps even, a long-standing apocryphal Village goal, just ban celebrity.

A more civilised future may contain any one of these elements. What is certain is that it will not comprehend any further elevation in our society of the status of celebrity. Oprah is the last person Trump’s deriders should aim to replace him with. After Trump’s ludicrous bid for greatness for his country, America needs more than anything – even more than on policy – a President whose focus has always been reality, not reality shows.


by Michael Smith