Jules Witcover: Oprah Winfrey for president?
WASHINGTON — Thanks to Donald Trump, what otherwise would likely be widely dismissed as a pipedream or a joke, talk of a 2020 presidential candidacy of television superstar Oprah Winfrey, is being assessed as not out of the question. If Trump could run in 2016 and win, why not Oprah?
Her idealistic pitch for better politics and governing, with a further rallying cry against sexual harassment in the workplace, delivered to a wildly enthusiastic audience at the Golden Globes awards ceremony, went to the heart of still optimistic Americans. They have been able so far to withstand Trump’s assault on the country’s democratic verities by his combination of fantasies and lies.
But the fact remains that despite Oprah Winfrey’s inspirational eloquence and Donald Trump’s election against all odds, her presidential candidacy would pose a much sterner challenge, as celebrity woman in a society still in the grip of racial and gender prejudice and inequality.
One of America’s best-known and politically successful women, House Minority Leader and former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, told reporters at the Capitol the other day: “I think one of the arguments for Oprah is 45,” meaning Trump’s success in getting elected. Then she added: “I think one of the arguments against Oprah is 45,” referring to his chaotic performance in the Oval Office, demonstrating the risk of placing a a political novice in the presidency.
However, Winfrey temperamentally is no Donald Trump, in addition to being more reliably liberal in political philosophy. Also, her whole history has been marked by service to others rather than to herself, compared to Trump’s long record of self-aggrandizement and boasting of achievement.
On the other hand, according to the Washington Post, while campaigning for first-term Sen. Barack Obama in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 2007, Winfrey said: “I challenge you to see through those people who try to convince you that experience with politics as usual is more valuable than wisdom won from years of serving people outside the walls of Washington, D.C.” Obama at the time had been a veteran of community organizing in Chicago and an Illinois state senator.
In her Golden Globes speech, given after being honored with a lifetime achievement award, Winfrey said nothing about elective politics, instead hammering at sexual harassment in “a culture broken by brutally powerful men.” She charged that “for too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dared to speak their truth of the power of those men. But their time is up,” she said, to heavy applause.
One of her supporting listeners, actress Meryl Streep, told the Post: “She launched a rocket tonight. I want her to run for president. I don’t think she had any intention. But now she doesn’t have a choice.”
Others are not so sure. David Axelrod, Obama’s 2008 campaign strategist, wondered “whether she would want to submit herself and her brand to this process. … Running for president is relentless, all-involving, sometimes degrading.”
On Bloomberg Television last year, she said she had “never considered the question even as a possibility,” but after Trump’s election, she said, “I thought, Oh, gee. I don’t have the experience, I don’t know enough. (But) now I’m thinking, Oh.”
One temptation may be that after Hillary Clinton’s crushing defeat in 2016, there is no obvious Democratic frontrunner for 2020. Former Vice President Joe Biden at 75 has said only he was keeping the door open, leaving Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, also 75, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and the lesser-known Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York as other possible candidates.
So Winfrey has plenty of time to ponder an uncertain political future, with a personal life of already great and satisfying achievement in place. She can continue serving the public as she has for so long, or campaign for one of the others in whom she believes, and have it all.
Right now, that alternative seems the more sensible one. If she does choose to ride this boomlet from the Hollywood crowd she will learn that much more will be at stake than the political version of an Oscar.
Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books.