Contest Essay National Oprah

Back in 1999, Donald Trump was considering a run for the presidency and who might be his running mate. He told anyone who would listen his choice: Oprah Winfrey. “I threw out the name of a friend of mine, who I think the world of, she’s great,” he said at an event. “I think,” he added, “we would be a very formidable team.” He told the TV host Larry King: “I love Oprah. Oprah would always be my first choice.”

It’s unknown whether Trump, then considering standing for the Reform party, ever seriously asked Winfrey, though it’s fun to imagine her reaction. Picture the meeting between this privileged white man, already an overblown character but yet to reach his reality TV-level fame, approaching Winfrey – giant TV star, Oscar-nominated actor and richer than Trump – to offer her a job. Winfrey would have been gracious, of course, as she declined his kind offer. Perhaps she would have howled with laughter after he left. Perhaps she made a mental note – to go with all the other mental notes of all the other men who belittled her – that should Trump ever become president, she would run against him. And win.

Could she? At the Golden Globes on Sunday evening, Winfrey was presented with the Cecil B DeMille award and she gave a political speech at what was already a political event. She talked about the power of seeing Sidney Poitier win an Oscar, as she watched as a child, and paid tribute to Recy Taylor, the African-American woman who died less than two weeks ago and bravely spoke out after she was abducted and raped by six white men in 1944 (they were never brought to justice). “She lived, as we all have lived, too many years in a culture broken by brutally powerful men,” said Winfrey. “For 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,” she said. “Their time is up.” I want all the girls watching, she said, voice rising, to know “that a new day is on the horizon”.

Oprah Winfrey's stirring Golden Globes speech prompts talk of White House run

“She launched a rocket tonight. I want her to run for president,” Meryl Streep told the Washington Post (the paper noted the “stump-like quality” of Winfrey’s oratory). The LA Times asked Winfrey’s partner Stedman Graham if she would do it and he reportedly said: “It’s up to the people. She would absolutely do it.” Which is the opposite of what Winfrey said in an interview with her friend Gayle King in 2015: “Not in this lifetime.” On Twitter, it was a foregone conclusion that Winfrey would run.

In an interview with Bloomberg, recorded in December 2016, she was asked about her presidential ambitions and revealed she might be coming round to the idea in the wake of a politically inexperienced TV star taking office. “I never considered the question even a possibility,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh gee, I don’t have the experience, I don’t know enough.’ And now I’m thinking, ‘Oh’.” It was a joke, King later said, but it didn’t stop the speculation. A Public Policy Polling survey found she would “lead Donald Trump 47-40 in a hypothetical 2020 Presidential contest”.

In September, a spokesperson said “she is not running for office” after Winfrey tweeted a New York Post article headlined “Democrats’ best hope for 2020: Oprah”. Winfrey was, noted columnist John Podhoretz, “the mirror image of Trump, but more so”. It’s why it is unthinkable, laughable, now we know what a Trump presidency looks like, that he could ever have thought Winfrey would be his vice-president.

There were the obvious differences: Trump is a white man, Winfrey is a black woman. He inherited wealth, her billions are self-made. Their backgrounds could not be more different. Trump grew up in privilege. Winfrey, whose ancestors were enslaved, was raised in poverty throughout an unstable childhood. He is an alleged sexual predator; she is a survivor of sexual abuse.

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On Sunday night, she distanced herself further from the president. In her speech, she paid tribute to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, “because we all know the press is under siege these days”, adding: “I want to say that I value the press more than ever before, as we try to navigate these complicated times.” Today, Trump was set to name his own “MOST DISHONEST & CORRUPT MEDIA AWARDS OF THE YEAR” (his capitals), to recognise “Dishonesty & Bad Reporting in various categories from the Fake News Media”, though he has postponed their announcement, he said on Twitter, until next week because “interest in, and importance of, these awards is far greater than anyone could have anticipated!”

If Trump is all about blame (immigrants, Muslims, the “fake mainstream” media), Winfrey trades in the potential for absolution. If you are a drugs cheat, or you have fictionalised parts of your memoir, you go on her show to confess and start the road to redemption (Winfrey’s hugely influential daytime TV show ran from 1986 to 2011, when she launched her own channel OWN). Trump is self-serving, where Winfrey advocates service to others. In a Smith College commencement speech last year, she talked a lot about service as empowerment and fulfilment. She has said one of her biggest lessons from her mentor, Maya Angelou, was: “When you learn, teach. When you get, give.” Trump, concluded the writer Mark Singer in a 1997 New Yorker profile, has “an existence unmolested by the rumbling of a soul”. Winfrey, by comparison, has built an entire career on expressing emotion, empathy and nurturing your interior life.

“She is a singular figure of moral authority,” says Kathryn Lofton, professor of religious studies, American studies and history at Yale University, and author of Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon. “When we’re looking to find someone who represents the idea of America, the image that everyone turns to is Oprah Winfrey.” It’s a complicated image, she says, of the “possibility of change over time, of coming from nothing and becoming something extraordinary. It’s also an image of enormous wealth, huge capacity to affect the world, to know everyone famous and to have everyone famous want to know you. So she truly is singular.” However, adds Lofton, “political leadership and moral leadership are two things that are hard in America’s history to put together. There are figures – presidents, senators, congressmen – who are moral authorities, but they are fewer than one might think, and that’s partially because political life is tough. Oprah has spoken about thinking about [entering politics], but I think she has resisted because political life is hard to do without a lot of compromising. Oprah is really great at the moral messaging [but] she has not, in public life, shown herself to be someone who wants to get into issues of particular legislative agenda. She has run a massive company so it’s not as if she can’t do the work; it’s that it would really change her brand to move from moral leadership to political leadership.”

Would Winfrey run? “I would never say never when it comes to Oprah,” says Lofton. The entire US political landscape has changed, and with it Winfrey’s hardline stance against running. “For many years, I used to think – until this election year, I thought – ‘Wow, I have no … Why do people say [I should run]? I have no qualifications to run,’” Winfrey told the TV host Jimmy Kimmel in June 2016. “After this year, I’m feeling really qualified.”

The traditional people – usually senators and governors – “who have historically been successful [don’t tend to] gain the media authority you now have to have to win”, says Lofton. “Whatever you want to say about Donald Trump, he has a pervasive media presence. You have to have that from the word go. I think people forget that Obama was also a media superstar. That is really going to be the coin of national elected office in America at this point. Oprah has that.” The question, as it has been for years, is whether Winfrey would consider this huge step as living her best life.

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