Is Anyone Else Terrorized by Her Oprahness?

Globe and Mail Comment, 18 January 2007

All this week the internet buzzed with the news that Barack Obama would announce his presidential bid on the Oprah show. In the end, he went with a low-key video to his supporters, sensible because who needs the light-weight association? Oprah’s already in the bag, in fact, she is the bag itself. If Obama is the darling of the cultural elites, the latest media pet, the hope of every progressive innocent in America, Oprah’s support trumps all. And it’s there, full on, he’s her candidate; she re-ran his hour-long Oprah show anointing the day before Christmas.

Let’s be crystal here: Hillary is toast. Oprah Winfrey is our not so secular goddess, who, as she says almost every week, gets her instructions directly from the Lord himself. That alone is a fearful thing. But this is far more fearsome. If Obama runs, barring mishaps, Obama will win, and Oprah will be responsible.

Surely someone else is terrorized by the lady? For me it started when she reamed out poor old James Frey who had done what every chump newbie writer might well do, when teamed up with a super publisher like Nan Talese. I can see Frey’s grateful bob and duck at lunch as he clocked Talese’s rueful shrug: what to do? bump up the drama kid, if you do, I’m agonna make you a star. Winfrey, who had promoted Frey into the stratosphere, was at least complicit. Neither of these women, each of whom commands a staff over one hundred strong, had ordered even the most basic fact checking.

But there was no admission of guilt by Winfrey. There was an excuse: ‘I didn’t know, I shouldn’t have’, etc., but no guilt, not from her Royal Oprahness. The tell, the indispensable clue to Winfrey’s view of herself was the outfit, the elaborate high white collar so stiff she couldn’t turn her head, the hair teased into a crown, the oh so regal purple in the dress. The astonishing subtext: I am the Pope, no one messes with me, my viewers are sacred; no one lies to them through me, I am the channel not the agent, I bear no responsibility. I need a blood sacrifice. Frey was slow roasted and served with a bouquet garni. It was agonizing television, and massively revealing.

And ever since that fateful day, she has been accruing gravitas with the inexorability of a tank. The leadership school for impoverished township girls in South Africa, is the latest move, announced over Christmas and massively publicized. This was her declaration that from now on, she is a Player, writ large.

The danger is this. Most of the time she is adorable, and increasingly so: the self-deprecation, the charming mugging, the disarming reveling in the trappings of the new royalty, the Gulfstream, the new Hawaii house, the Legends Ball, the fulsome celebration of Black culture, the soft stern suggestions to the less fortunate, the parade of opulence rained down upon the oppressed heroines of inner-city America, all this is utterly seductive. She is loved far more than she is powerful, and she could be more powerful than any woman since Elizabeth I.

With Oprah behind him, Obama will out-fundraise the Clintons, and on voting day, she will turn out every white, black, Hispanic, and visible minority woman in America. Don’t believe me? Thirty million Americans watch her every single week. Her show is broadcast in 116 different countries, her magazine Oprah is the only mega-successful launch in that category in decades, with over 150 advertising pages per month. She has had the top television talk show for twenty years. She receives 15,000 emails a week. Oxygen, her cable network is in 55 million homes. She produces Broadway plays and television films, which reach new demographics every year. She has her own radio station, on XMRadio; it’s appalling, but we’re talking six million listeners. She is a billionaire. She is wildly charitable; at least ten percent of her income goes to alleviating human suffering. After 9/11, Rudoph Guiliani chose her to lead the nation in prayer.

Too bad for us that the politics are wooly, because the feelings are simply wonderful. Here of course is the most trenchant criticism of Barack Obama’s bid. He’s untried, he’s young, he’s all things to all Democrats, you can’t hang a scandal or accomplishment on him, he’s already too fond of corporate cash, and his speeches are full of the feel-good archaic statist thinking typical of most liberals, an updating of the class wars of the 1930’s. A black man with a white mother, his father from Africa, the continent which needs our ministrations most? There’s no thinking that will ever trump that. We might as well lie down for it right now. It’s going to feel wonderful, until we have our James Frey moment.