‘Oprah 2020,’ a Lesson In the Power of Stories

Posted January 8, 2018 4:44 p.m. EST

I have no idea if Oprah Winfrey could be president. I have no idea if she should be president. I certainly have no idea why she might want the demotion. (Can you really get used to “President Winfrey” after earning pop culture’s highest title, the mononym?)

But anybody who does run for president could do worse than to study her speech at Sunday night’s Golden Globes.

Winfrey’s speech accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement was directly about the #MeToo movement and the arc of civil rights struggles. But with its talk of “tyrants” and “history” and “a new day,” it had the music and lyrics of the kind of acceptance speech that ends with a balloon drop.

The moment has inspired a mini “Oprah 2020” boomlet of speculation in political media. Even NBC saluted Winfrey with a tweet, since deleted: “Nothing but respect for OUR future president.” (You’d think the home of “The Apprentice” might want to recuse itself from the future-president business by now.)

After a year with a reality-TV ratings junkie in symbiosis with “Fox & Friends,” there are many reasons to wonder about a turn to another television star. Is politics becoming permanently celebritized? Do we want the presidency to become the ultimate Cecil B. DeMille Award?

But to argue that Winfrey should run for president — or shouldn’t — simply because she’s a celebrity oversimplifies the issue. Most celebrities would make terrible candidates. (No offense, Kid Rock.) The real consideration here is why Winfrey is a celebrity, and all those qualifications were on display in that speech.

It’s a master’s stage performance. It builds from kitchen confession to mountaintop thunder. It shifts perspective cinematically — close in on young Winfrey, pull back to a panorama of the United States. It uses preacherly rhythms and even cliffhangers (“a young worker by the name of ... Rosa Parks”).

But above all, it’s a story. And it’s a story about stories. It moves from the personal (young Winfrey sitting on the linoleum floor, watching Sidney Poitier win an Oscar) to the communal (women in Hollywood, and women working on farms and even “some pretty phenomenal men”). It links “your truth” and “absolute truth.” It tells the audience: I have my struggle, and I know you have yours, and that connects us all in the sweep of a global struggle.

Conventional politicians can do that, too, though it’s not easy or common. President Barack Obama was no one’s idea of a shoo-in when he announced his campaign. But he synthesized his biography (as the “kid with a funny name”), his country’s current struggles and an idea of generational social progress into one evocative narrative — change.

People are drawn to stories for a reason: In politics as in art, they say more than a list of bullet points.

In 2008, the campaign of presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., tried to turn Obama's crowd appeal against him, with an attack ad that sneered, “He’s the biggest celebrity in the world,” juxtaposing Obama with Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. The language and images cast his “celebrity” as slight, unserious — and, unsubtly, feminine. But then, what celebrities do well is what politicians aspire to: They make themselves the protagonists of a story their followers want to share in.

That’s powerful. Of course, powerful is another word for dangerous. One danger of TV savvy as a political tool is that it makes politics about delivering whatever agitation keeps the red camera light on. It can be an emotional machine gun for demagogues, obliterating rational argument.

If she were to run, Winfrey might be a more old-fashioned celebrity candidate than Trump. Her brand is about empathy and consensus, the model of 20th-century big-tent daytime TV. Pundits were talking about the “Oprahfication” of politics way back in the feel-your-pain presidency of Bill Clinton.

Trump’s brand, on the other hand, is about confrontation and us-versus-them. This had been a tack of protest candidates like Pat Buchanan (star of “Crossfire”), but it became a more feasible path to victory in the polarized America of 2016. In TV terms, she’s a broadcaster (despite now having a cable network), he’s a niche programmer (despite having been on NBC).

It would be something to see how “You get a car!” fares against “You’re fired!” should it ever come to that. Winfrey would bring her own vast following, helpfully overlapping Democratic base groups including African-Americans and women. Winfrey would bring TV baggage, too, including having used her talk show as a platform for self-help panaceas. (Trump has his “truthful hyperbole” and “alternative facts”; she has the dream-it-and-you-can-be-it mantra of “The Secret.”) She gave the world Dr. Mehmet Oz, who in the 2016 campaign let Trump flash a piece of paper on his program and declare himself in big-league health.

Whether or not the United States needs Oprah, though, “Oprahesque” is not a terrible goal for a politician to aim for. The ability to captivate an audience does not itself pass legislation or make disarmament deals. But it’s not nothing. Elections are contests of stories. Scoff at the idea of Oprah 2020, if you will. But if you’re looking for your own path to 2020, you might just want to look under your seat.