Forget Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin: The most influential woman in this U. S. election campaign is a television host
There was a moment during Barack Obama’s speech at Mile High Stadium in Denver when he waxed rhetorical about his place in the cosmos and his future, his present and his past.
“Life is huge, more expansive than we can feel or imagine,” he said. “Even in my deepest meditation or moments of profound awareness, I can only connect with a fraction of all that is alive. Whenever I find myself in a difficult situation, I’m reminded of a line from a Maya Angelou poem called Our Grandmothers: “I go forth / alone, and stand as ten thousand.” I think of all who’ve come before me and had to endure trials that would level most of us in our urban comfort zones, and I realize I’m not the first person to face big challenges. This has been done before. I can do it again, maybe even better.”
That’s Senator Obama isn’t it, at once self-referential, sympathetic, determined, optimistic and vaguely spiritual? Except that he did not say that in Denver. That’s Oprah Winfrey writing in her self-named, self-celebratory O magazine, back in May 2004. But could not those lines, masterfully delivered, come from the Illinois senator himself? Oprah, Obama. Obama, Oprah.
Oprah Winfrey is the most successful woman in television, the most powerful force in book publishing, and a star who single-handedly rescued daytime television from becoming an all-tawdry, all-bawdy exploitation of human misery and suffering. Oprah came up on the seedy side of televised humiliation, but along the way to massive success had a Damascene conversion, and now uses her program for the general uplift of her millions of loyal viewers. Oprah long ago announced herself for Obama and campaigned for him.
During the Democratic convention, many of us were focused on Hillary Clinton — the great vessel of women’s hopes and her husband’s insatiable appetite for power. There was Michelle Obama, arguing that she is no black radical, but an All-American mom. For the Republicans we have Cindy McCain, presenting herself as a manager and philanthropist, not merely a socialite heiress. Then Sarah Palin, the Alaska Governor, burst onto the national scene to both rapturous applause and spluttering disbelief.
Yet Oprah may be the most influential woman of this presidential election. She didn’t choose Obama simply because he, like her, is a transplanted Chicagoan, a black American from a turbulent upbringing who made it big. She chose Obama because the heart of Obama’s appeal is that personal affirmation is the heart of transformational change. Obama: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” Oprah: “Become the change you want to see.”
It is a mistake to dismiss Oprah Winfrey, discussing makeovers and dispensing lavish gifts upon her cultish fans. Her message of self-esteem and self-improvement as the path to self-development and self-contentment resonates deeply in the culture. It is a deeply seductive message– that the solution to every problem lies not in self-sacrifice for others but in taking care of one’s own needs. How do we improve the broken world around us? We take care of ourselves. The Great Self who has struggled mightily to do that, in the face of harrowing sufferings, is Oprah herself. Hence the eponymous television show, magazine, book club, cable network, satellite radio channel — it’s about Oprah, who tells in turn that it is all about us. Live your best life. Oprah does.
In anointing Senator Obama, Oprah recognized the political adaptation of her therapeutic approach. Obama is another Great Self, who offers himself as an exemplary model of healing, reconciliation, prosperity and peace. He, like Oprah, is an immensely talented communicator who has the rare gift of making people feel better about themselves, their communities and their country. That is no small thing.
Obama’s greatest interest and greatest achievement to date has been translating his personal story into a political program, even as Oprah has done the same culturally. A gifted memoirist, he has written not one, but two, autobiographies — rather astonishing for a man not yet 50.
“Barack Obama is an immensely talented man whose talents have been largely devoted to crafting, and chronicling, his own life,” wrote Charles Krauthammer in these pages on Saturday. “Not things. Not ideas. Not institutions. But himself.”
That is not mere vanity. It is his philosophy that in the examination and the exaltation of the extraordinary self lies the path forward. He shares that view with a great many Americans, many of whom give him the adulation they give to Oprah. She has been a very influential woman in this presidential race. And if he wins, America will have its O president.