Give Hillary credit.
She strode fiercely into the fray against the most powerful cultural force of our era. No fool she, yet she rushed in where angels fear to tread. She went up against the one, the only, the invincible… Oprah. She never stood a chance in Iowa, but ya gotta love her for trying.
Phil Donahue took on Oprah, counting on his Irish blood, his liberal credentials and his marriage to Marlo Thomas to see him through; now he is squeegeeing car windows outside NBC studios in New York. Jerry Springer came next to slay the dragon. He was the most durable of men, having lost his city council seat in Cincinnati when he was caught paying a prostitute by check and still coming back to win the mayoralty of that city as a penitent. Despite all that, he was no match for the Bigger O (The original Big O was Cincinnati basketball star Oscar Robertson), and he now is left bottom-feeding in an ever-sinking ground floor of the media world.
Once establishing her queenship over the TV world, Oprah branched out into producing a few movies and publishing a magazine. Finally, the capstone of her cultural dominance seemed to be her book club, where she demonstrated the power to confer bestseller status by fiat. The most literate of scholars was prepared to grovel in ingratiation of this omnipotent trendsetter. Could she go higher? The answer turns out to be yes. From the moment she made a public rally for Barack Obama, his star has been shooting in a sharply upward trajectory.
Political types will mention Hillary’s debate gaffe, her planted question scandal, her counterproductive potshots at Obama’s early ambition and drug use. But cultural mavens know better. Oprah beat Hillary in Iowa and Obama just got out of the way and let it happen.
Is this good for America? That is the question we are left to ponder. There were always H.L. Mencken types, thinkers who built careers in journalism and literature that eventually built them into widely accepted arbiters of what should be honored in the public thoroughfare. More recently some radio figures were able to achieve iconic personas that could move public opinions and markets with their recommendations, people like Rush Limbaugh, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, and even Don Imus, who could multiply a book’s sales many fold by citing it favorably.
As a TV personality, there has never been a phenomenon quite like Oprah. She has reached the point of fame and fortune that no one sees any of her choices as motivated anymore by a desire for fame and fortune. She is sort of the anti-Gandhi; instead of swearing off money and power, she has banked so much of those things they seem to mean nothing.
Figures from the culture have always crossed lines into politics, for long or short periods, as either candidates or advocates. Yet an endorsement from Dick Norris to Mike Huckabee or from Dennis Miller to Rudy Giuliani is strictly limited in its punch. By Oprah transcending the preexisting categories and being seen as a selfless promoter of what she sees as good, her voice has taken on a real magic.
It is important to add one specific point to this general overview. Namely, that everyone sees Oprah Winfrey and Hillary Clinton as belonging to the same broad left-wing category of big-government enthusiasts. Without Obama in the campaign, Hillary would have had her vote in the blink of an eye. By her not only backing Obama, but doing so noisily, Oprah has signaled that what he stands for outweighs Hillary’s contribution.
Barack Obama still has a long way to go, but the thing is sure trending his way, despite his New Hampshire speed bump. (Had he brought Oprah to that state on Sunday, he would have sealed the deal.) It’s well within his reach at this point, if he can keep his energy level up, save his voice and avoid letting his handlers try to polish his thoughtful on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand style of presenting issues. He will be a formidable candidate against any Republican in the general election, probably more electable than Hillary, especially with his ability to excite young people into voting.
Are his ideas really any different than standard liberal clichés? Nope. After the agonizing self-debate he lays out for you, he comes down squarely on the Bill Moyers side of every problem. But he has the kind of panache and cachet that can catapult him across the threshold of that building on Pennsylvania Avenue. And he is the November 2008 selection of the Oprah Winfrey Presidents Club. Let us pray that wisdom, somehow, prevails.