The metabolism of the media is such that we moved, within 20 hours, from the exhortation that Oprah Winfrey run for president (roughly 11 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on Sunday) to the reading of rune stones about whether she’d be game (8 a.m. Monday) to the analysis of her chances of victory (2 p.m.) to the deconstruction of what it all said about America (7 p.m.).
Sometime Wednesday the speculation about what she’ll wear to her inauguration should commence. By Saturday we’ll be reviewing the campaign missteps that sent her poll numbers into free fall, and the pundits on the Sunday morning talk shows can bicker over which of her confidantes and handlers are to blame.
But I’d like to go back to the analysis-of-her-chances phase and to something that came up among the analyzers: Is Oprah too much a replay of Donald Trump, in that she’s another unfathomably famous billionaire with no experience in government? Or do their differences far outnumber their similarities, in that she’s a black woman as earnest about personal improvement as he is convinced of his superhuman perfection?
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The answer matters, because there’s a compelling theory that when voters change presidents, they want a departure, someone poised to correct many of the flaws and fill in many of the holes that his (or her!) predecessor had.
But the question misses a big player and big part of the equation. Oprah’s ability to excite Democrats and independents doesn’t hinge entirely, or even mainly, on whether she’s the un-Trump. It has more to do with her being the un-Clinton.
Barely a day goes by when Trump’s behavior doesn’t fill most Democrats with despair, and they have spent the first year of his presidency torturing and berating themselves: How did such a spectacularly unqualified person with such a proudly offensive nature manage to win the Electoral College?
While there’s a brimming grab bag of possible explanations (Vladimir Putin, James Comey, Facebook), nearly all of the Democrats I know maturely admit that one factor can’t be dismissed, and their regret about it intensifies over time: The party put its chips on the wrong candidate.
Wrong not because Hillary Clinton is a woman – though that may have hurt – and not because she lacked seasoning, skills and a plan. Clinton checked all of those boxes.
But she was a terrible fit for the times, which were anti-elitist, anti-erudition, anti-Washington. To many voters, she was a career politician who had been pining and plotting for the presidency her whole life. And she had spent so much time at the center of so much controversy. She was exhausting.
On top of which, she had trouble connecting with voters. She acknowledged as much in her speech at the Democratic National Convention. It was smoothly delivered but nothing soaring. Nothing that gave goose bumps.
Oprah soars. Oprah gives goose bumps. That’s her métier, and where Clinton wants for charisma, Oprah overflows with it. She’s the Niagara Falls of charisma, and as warm to the touch as Clinton can be cold.
Over decades in public life, Clinton struggled to find the best, most poignant way to invoke her family background and tell her life story, but she never got it as right as Oprah did in the brief autobiographical parts of her remarks at the Golden Globes on Sunday night.
And no one can call Oprah a Washington insider.
None of this is an argument for her candidacy, which would be a mistake in many ways. How effectively could Democrats disparage Trump as a political novice who got in over his head if they were backing another novice, no matter how much more serious-minded she was?
Are we ready to surrender this fully to celebrity as a currency above all others? Do we not understand that as soon as Oprah entered into partisan tussles and made tough political decisions, she’d be Oprah no more?
I’m betting that she realizes it and won’t run in the end, for that reason and another: She lacks Trump’s shamelessness, which enabled him to transcend his unpreparedness for the office. He was happy to claim knowledge that he didn’t possess and stake out positions to which he’d given minimal thought because, hey, he was Trump! Details and facts paled beside his majesty and his needs. Why worry about credentials when there’s applause to be savored?
I don’t think I’m idealizing Oprah when I say that she’s probably too aware of what she’s unaware of to follow Trump’s lead, and that he rushed in where she’ll rightly fear to tread.
But the Oprah hoopla is a lesson to Democrats and a clue to which of them might ultimately get the party’s nomination. That person will be as brightly inspirational as Trump is darkly confrontational. That will person will radiate empathy.
That person may not be Oprah. But he or she will be Oprah-esque.