יום שלישי, 9 בינואר 2018

The Fever Dream of President Oprah

By Doreen St. Félix

Oprah Winfrey’s work of earning such unprecedented secular authority—not at all unlike that of a politician—has involved gradually and tenaciously gaining her constituency’s trust.Photograph by David Fisher / REX / Shutterstock

Oprah Winfrey, the politician, has long been an American fever dream. “Oprah, I love Oprah. Oprah would always be my first choice,” Donald Trump told Larry King in 1999. King had asked Trump about a running mate, should he ever decide to abandon his ambrosial New York life style for Washington. (Trump echoed the idea in an interview with George Stephanopoulos in 2015, as the fantasy of his own campaign was congealing into something grossly real.) Public-opinion polls showed that Trump’s impression of Winfrey was in line with that of millions; in the nineteen-nineties, the talk-show host was expanding a zone of influence that was already sprawling. Female ambition, mental health, gun violence, body image, sexual abuse, vaccines, financial literacy, the racial caste system, the literary establishment, and the election of Presidents came to fall into Oprah’s creeping jurisdiction, as would the notion of self-empowerment.

The work of earning such an unprecedented secular authority—not at all unlike that of a politician—has involved gradually and tenaciously gaining her constituency’s trust. On “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” she served as an empath, challenger, and guardian of the varied anxieties of the middle-class cause. Along the way, she rewrote the romance of the American striver in the image of her impossible ascent. The mass of motivational literature that she has produced encourages us to remember her as a little black girl in Milwaukee, born amid a nation’s racial upheaval. With Oprah, every new consolidation of power—her talk show and her production company and her book club and her magazine and her network—bore her name. And the name now signifies the virtues of ownership, accumulation. It is, in a word, inspirational. In his review of “Oprah: A Biography,” Kitty Kelley’s unauthorized tome, from 2011, Stephen Metcalf wrote, “Winfrey chaperoned a generation of women, organizing the self’s power—to confess, first; then to industriously inspect; then possibly, to improve; but most of all, to never exit itself.”

Lately, we’ve been especially deprived of the sort of galvanizing that Oprah can induce. We have been lacking, too, the delights of a well-wrought oration. At the Golden Globe Awards, Oprah delivered. The recipient of the 2018 Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement in entertainment stood in opposition to the moral fracturing of two massive institutions: post-Weinstein Hollywoodand post-Trump government. Those in her crowd, dressed in black, in sartorial protest of the endemic sexism of their industry, had a roiling energy, but Oprah chartered a clear direction. She crafted a narrative that fluidly linked the endurance of her mother to the universal struggles of abused women workers—“domestic workers and farmworkers” and academics and engineers, athletes and soldiers. She reminded the world of Recy Taylor, a black woman who was raped by six white men after attending church, in 1944. (The case never went to trial; Taylor died on December 28, 2017.) And Winfrey incorporated the message of the newly announced Hollywood initiative against sexual harassment and gender discrimination, “Time’s Up.” “Their time is up,” she chanted, three times. And then, pumping her first, she shouted, “So, I want all the girls watching here and now to know that a new day is on the horizon!”

It was sermonic. One could immediately sense the shift in the room. In our fidgety political climate, any sort of cogent articulation from a person of power has the ring of a stump speech. “He’s running,” the meme goes. Paranoia sets in each time it is reported that Mark Zuckerberg has addressed an assembly of more than ten people; Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson seems to be softening his wrestler’s brow into that of a candidate’s. The notion of a Winfrey Presidency took hold instantly. “She launched a rocket tonight,” Meryl Streep said, after the ceremony ended. She didn’t see how Oprah had a choice in the matter. In a 2005 episode of the animated series “The Boondocks,” a newspaper is plopped on the ground, bearing the headline “Oprah 2020”; this week, #Oprah2020 dominates. The messages in favor have the quality of a swoon (imagine the White House garden!), and the messages against it, of premature caution (“Oprah 2020 is a Bad Liberal Revenge Fantasy”). “I am not immune to Oprah’s charms, but President Winfrey is a terrible idea,” Thomas Chatterton Williams wrote in response to the commotion. “It also underscores the extent to which Trumpism—the kowtowing to celebrity and ratings, the repudiation of experience and expertise—has infected our civic life.”

Oprah herself has been a bit coy. It is her popularity that has stoked the discussion rather than her actions. In June, she told the Hollywood Reporter that she would never run; she said much the same when she was interviewed by Bloomberg after the awards show on Sunday. But she’s also shared a New York Post op-ed calling for her to run on Twitter, writing, “Thank you for the vote of confidence.” And her partner, Stedman Graham, told a reporter from the Los Angeles Times, “She would absolutely do it.” Brian Stelter, at CNN, has two sources close to Winfrey who say that she is mulling the decision. This morning, the CBS host Gayle King, Oprah’s confidante, suggested that Oprah has grown somewhat intrigued: “As I’ve heard many years on the ‘Oprah’ show, you always have the right to change your mind.”

Strategists in both parties are imagining the potency of the challenge she might pose. There is more evidence on which to weigh these speculations than there was with our current President: Oprah has functioned as a cultural politician for more than a generation. She sponsored the passage of a bill against childhood abuse, in 1991. The ardor she has inspired in white women, whom the Democrats must flip, is legendary; in 2006, her godmotherly endorsement of the newcomer Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton, which helped to swing the Democratic primaries in Obama’s favor, left many of those women reeling. She’s been criticized by young black rappers and young black activists, to whom she seems out of touch; she’s been an invaluable vessel for information on climate change and domestic abuse; and she’s also patronized the quackery of Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz. In other words, Oprah is no stranger to the political gauntlet, albeit in the contiguous realm of culture. And yet it is the institution of the “celebrity” Presidency that is provoking alarm: a retaliatory cycle of billionaire President after billionaire President is not the course for the Democratic establishment.

I am inclined to share elements of the concern. I have always been a bit bemused by the totemic invocations of an Oprah or a Michelle Obama Presidency, as if a popular black woman of any degree of qualification could actually be elected to the highest office. (And only in these dire times would a speech about the specific resilience of black women be interpreted as “Presidential.”) But spitting at the culture of celebrity and personality belittles the critical mystique of the Presidential role. Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy were hawks about how the public perceived them; Reagan was a celebrity. And in the Obama age, deriding charisma as superfluous jive-talking became a Republican dog-whistle. (In 2008, an advertisement from the John McCain campaign asked, seductively, of Obama, “He’s the biggest celebrity in the world. But is he ready to lead?”) Obama exploited celebrity, became synonymous with it, and the Obama White House’s embrace of Oprah-inflected gestures—his book and music recommendations; Michelle Obama’s vibrant stewardship of women’s interests—made his one of the more popular Presidencies in history. American voters are excitable souls. Alongside ideological fealty and policy positions, they long for narrative and myth, for Camelot. Trump has deeply perverted this American tradition. But part of the work of levelling a serious Democratic challenge against Trump will be about rescuing it.

And that’s what Oprah symbolizes: the “anti-Trump,” as Josh Marshall, the editor of Talking Points Memo, wrote on Twitter: “Oprah is black, a woman, unabashed, loved, genuinely self-made as opposed to the product of intergenerational failsonry and legitimately rich.” Whomever the Democrats push as Trump’s adversary will need to seem as intuitively anti-Trump. In “The New Profits of Capital,” Nicole Aschoff considers the ways Sheryl Sandberg, John Mackey, Bill and Melinda Gates, and Oprah preside over an economy of neoliberal mythmaking: “Oprah is one of a new group of elite storytellers who present practical solutions to society’s problems that can be found within the logic of existing profit-driven structures of production and consumption.” She’s made the American Dream seem increasingly attainable, Aschoff writes, at a time when it is otherwise shrinking. It’s a conjuring power that should be studied and cribbed from. Imagining what the country would be like under the rule of your favorite celebrity was once a parlor game; today it feels like a speech act. More than anything else, #Oprah2020 strikes me as a community thought experiment, a buzzing knot of desperation, fanaticism, and—weirdly—logic. We might as well look to the heart of these fantasies for instruction.

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