Article created by The Century Foundation.
Al Gore was mocked for stuffiness when he ran for president in 2000. Now he’s the star of a smash movie with a #1 bestselling book. Bill Clinton, as president, was a sexual predator on trial before the Senate. Now his appearances before starry-eyed youth conventions (and high-paying motivational sales meetings) are revved by strobe lights and rock music.
Wes Clark returned from Kosovo a little-known general who had been abruptly replaced by the Pentagon. He wrote an excellent book about war, became a charismatic CNN commentator, made the cover of Newsweek, and ran for president in 2004. He was aware, he told me at the time, that once actually a candidate, he would stop being exciting and become just another guy in a suit on the debate platform between Dick Gephardt and Al Sharpton.
Now the Democrats are sizing up potential candidates for 2008, a great opportunity to retake the White House. The recent list includes Hilary Clinton, John Kerry, John Edwards, Joe Biden, Mark Warner, Evan Bayh, Tom Vilsack, Bill Richardson, Clark, and the sizzling Barack Obama. Does anyone doubt that once the gun goes off, every one of these contenders will be faulted for lacking some essential quality: gravitas, experience, wit, integrity, eloquence, money? One battered candidate will emerge triumphant and, win or lose, has a shot at a future on television, in the movies, in books, or on a lucrative lecture tour.
So here’s a suggestion. Let’s reverse the process and put forward a Democratic candidate for president who is already a television star, a movie-maker, a best-selling author, a philanthropist, and, oh yes, a billionaire business woman: Oprah Winfrey for president.
By today’s standards, Oprah has it all. She has more direct influence than any other public figure in American life. Who else could have made huge bestsellers out of Faulkner, Dostoevesky, and Elie Wiesel on the Holocaust? She genuinely cares about race, poverty, and social justice. She has skillfully navigated the shark-infested waters of Hollywood, Broadway, and business boardrooms. She is a chief executive who runs her enterprises without, as far as we can tell, the consultants, lobbyists, and financial handlers who dominate the lives of our career politicians. She is African American and a woman, and has struggled with her weight, qualities that make her empathetic with a majority of Americans.
She doesn’t have experience in political compromise and dealmaking. Neither did Arnold Schwarzenegger, and he is now responsible for California, and while the record is far from clear, he seems to be at least on par with his predecessor, Gray Davis. She certainly doesn’t know about making war. But as we all now are ruefully aware, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, with ample experience in Defense and the White House and having finessed the revered Colin Powell, guided us into battle with ineptitude that is historic.
In fact, the main reason for not including Oprah on a list of credible Democrats is that on its face, the idea is preposterous (I’m assuming she is a Democrat, but if she is either a Republican or a certified independent, I would be glad to revise this column accordingly). Many years ago, Russell Baker devised the concept of “The Great Mentioner” the process in journalism by which names became insinuated into political discussion. All it would take to transition Oprah Winfrey from the realm of ridiculous to a serious; candidate for the presidency would be a succession of quick hits: discussion on a major political blog or two, asides by television talking heads like Anderson Cooper and Tim Russert, furious denunciation by Ann Coulter and Bill O’Reilly, and finally, consideration by a sage, like the esteemed David Broder or David Brooks. And if Oprah herself then gave the merest hint of interest, the result would be the greatest groundswell of outsider cachet since Ross Perot in 1992, who put together a top-flight political team after he gave out an 800 number on the Larry King show. For much of that spring, Perot led the polls.
Oprah Winfrey is by any measure an extraordinary character. Maybe we should find out how she’d do in a primary.