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President Winfrey: Politics and entertainment

<r too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dared to speak their truth to the power of those men. But their time is up. Their time is up.”  This is just one of Oprah’s many memorable quotes from her recent Golden Globes speech.  Oprah has long been fighting for women, both internationally and domestically.  She has founded and supports countless organizations that work to empower women.  And Oprah endowed her own charitable organization with $240 million, the majority of which went to support her Leadership Academy in South Africa,  a college prep high school for young women.  This is all to say that Oprah is clearly an upstanding and generous individual who uses her platform and power to better the conditions of others.

Oprah’s Golden Globes speech served as another example of her incredible ability to tell a story and to make a point.  Oprah opened her speech on an autobiographical note, sharing her experience and the emotions she felt while watching Sidney Poitier win the 1964 Oscar for Best Actor, the first black man to receive the award.  And by the end of her speech, as put by journalist Sophie Gilbert, Oprah “captured the systemic inequality that’s still rooted at the heart of the entertainment industry.” Oprah’s speech also struck a hopeful chord by asserting that it will be women who “become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say ‘Me too’ again.”  Her speech was almost universally lauded.  Even Ivanka Trump called it “inspiring and empowering.”

While you might be expecting me to continue to wax poetic about Oprah’s brilliance and her seemingly superhuman ability to connect, please bear with me as this piece takes a sharp political turn.

Thoughts of Oprah Winfrey as a political figure are nothing new, but her rousing Golden Globes speech did much to reinvigorated calls for her to run for president in 2020.  Countless political pundits argue that Oprah should now be seriously considered as a potential presidential candidate for 2020.  Jon Favreau, President Obama’s chief speechwriter, tweeted his own thoughts shortly after her speech; “Oprah Winfrey is as brilliant and inspiring as any public figure today. She doesn’t speak to celebrity America, she speaks to America. Don’t underestimate her.”  And in the hours after her speech, Google searches for the phrase “Oprah 2020” spiked.  As stated previously, the idea of Oprah running for public office have been around for while.  While considering running for the Reform Party’s 2000 Presidential nomination, celebrity businessman Donald Trump said that Oprah would be his first choice for Vice President.   More recently in March of 2017, a poll found that Oprah would win the popular vote over Trump (47% to 40%) in a hypothetical election.
Oprah herself has entertained the possibility of running for president.  Asked early last year whether she would consider running, Oprah responded that although she previously assumed that she did not have the requisite political experience to be Commander-in-Chief, seeing Trump elected indicated to her that her assumption might be wrong.  And following Oprah’s Golden Globes speech, her lifelong friend, journalist and “CBS This Morning” host Gayle King,shared that Oprah is “very intrigued” by the idea of running and that Oprah “loves this country and would like to be of service in some way”.  While it remains to be seen whether Oprah decides to try and be of service in a presidential capacity, it is worthwhile to consider what the implications of a President Winfrey, or even a candidate Winfrey would be on our political culture.

It is a bit scary to me that the most recent upswing in calls for Oprah to run for president are based, anyway you cut it, on a 10-minute TV appearance at an awards show.  President Trump has increased the intimacy of the relationship between entertainment and politics, and drafting a celebrity candidate primarily based on an awards show speech would certainly push that relationship towards marriage.
Part of the problem with wedding politics to entertainment is that the cachet of celebrity candidates can shift our priorities as voters.  There is a reason experience is a valued commodity. If I were choosing between dentists I would certainly choose the more experienced because presumably they have had more time to perfect their toothy craft.  Now, I understand that if a legislator spends too much time in office they run into the danger of losing touch with their constituents, but it seems like quite the overcorrection to all of a sudden support candidates who have no political experience.  Experience is inherently valuable and that extends to the political arena, where candidates for president should spend time in public office prior to running, honing their legislative and rhetorical skills so that they can effectively pursue their presidential agendas, whatever they might be.

Many people would support Oprah because of her deep understanding the challenges facing her potential constituents and her previously demonstrated abilities to bring about positive change.  Still, I do not think that voters need to sacrifice political experience and tact to find a candidate who has a strong awareness of the issues facing voters and a keenness to act on those matters.  Although it seems like an eternity ago,  many voters saw these Oprah-like traits in Barack Obama in 2008, yet he also had political experience prior to running for president to effectively act on the challenges facing the American people.  It is my belief, or maybe my political naiveté, that there will continue to be candidates who are both experienced and good-hearted.  But if not, maybe Oprah in 2020 would not be so bad.

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