Six Characters in Search of a Blogger

1.5 Living la vida Oprah
November 14, 2008, 10:29 am
Filed under: Women of Campaign 2008 | Tags: , , ,

I’ve been writing a lot about imaginary places and things this week:  Never-Never-Land, Oz, time machines–even Disney World, which is really just a giant theme park about imaginary places.  

But I have saved the most magical place of all for now.  (Please bow your heads in reverence.)  Ladies and gentlemen, we are now going to enter the realm of Oprah.

Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey

Yes, Oprah is magic.  We all know it.  People have talked about the special feeling they get when just standing in her presence; some have described it as a tingling, others a warm radiance, still others just a variation on speechless awe.  But how can we help it?  She is a one-woman empire, and very much the Empress of that empire.  She waves one hand and houses appear in ravaged New Orleans; waves the other and schools sprout out of the ground in Africa.  She simply picks up a book and it becomes a bestseller.  She espouses a spiritual philosophy and suddenly there are thousands of adherents around the world.  She plays with an Amazon Kindle, and it goes on everyone’s Christmas list.  (I can only hope that her primetime hug with Tina Fey on “30 Rock” last week will ensure the show is picked up by NBC in perpetuity, or at least until Alec Baldwin’s contract runs out.)

But Oprah took a big leap of faith during Campaign 2008, something she had never done before.  This time, she took sides.  This time, she endorsed a candidate.

Her admiration for Barack Obama had been obvious for years before the endorsement.  In fact, he had appeared on her show twice: once in 2004, following his starmaking address at the Democratic National Convention, and then again in 2006 before he declared his intent to run for the Presidency.  As she noted on The Larry King Show in May of 2007, she never attempted to hide her regard for Obama, the man she referred to as “my Senator” (Obama is, of course, the junior Senator from Illinois, where both Oprah and her company Harpo Productions are based.)

What was shocking, however, was the fact that she decided to throw the full force of her iconic power behind a candidate in a political race–not simply by lending her name, but by actively going out on the stump for him.  And while in her role as “America’s most popular daytime talk show host” she did not have the same obligations as, say, a network news anchor–she had neither the journalistic gravitas nor the professional obligation to remain impartial–nevertheless, the impact of her endorsement felt like that of a network news heavyweight (someone like Tom Brokaw comes to mind.)  For Oprah had, in the 21 years her show had been on the air, held herself above the fray, using her show’s platform to feature all the candidates, and allowing her viewers make their own decisions.  She famously humanized both Al Gore and George W. Bush during the 2000 Presidential campaign when they each appeared individually on her show.  So viewers had become used to a certain degree of impartiality.  On the aforementioned Larry King Live episode, Oprah hinted that she understood the risk she was taking by getting involved in politics at this stage in her career, but also acknowledged she had strong reasons for doing so:  “I think that what he [Obama] stands for, what he has proven that he can stand for, what he has shown was worth me going out on a limb for–and I haven’t done that in the past because I…didn’t know anybody well enough to be able to say, I believe this person.”  

Oprah campaigning for "her Senator," Barack Obama

Oprah campaigning for "her Senator," Barack Obama

And most of us know what followed from there.  Oprah was on the stump for Obama in places like Iowa and New Hampshire during the early campaign for the Democratic Party nomination, drawing sell-out crowds in stadiums from state to state.  She held star-studded fundraisers in his honor that raised millions.  But on her daily talk show, she remained mute about her support.  It was a matter of principle, she said:  because she had indicated a personal preference in the Presidential race, she would keep discussion of the campaign off of her talk show.  She wouldn’t attempt to have any candidates on, because she didn’t want to appear disingenuous, pretending to be objective during the interviews.  The candidates, she said, would have to wait until after November 4 to be featured as guests.

But here is where the risk came in.  Oprah, no doubt, was very conscious of the demographics of her viewership when she made her decision to support Obama’s campaign.  And she must have realized that a significant portion of that population would be Hillary supporters–because her audience is “predominantly female, white, and over age 55.”  (Source: MSNBC)  So when she announced that she would not have Hillary Clinton, (or later, Sarah Palin) on her show, despite myriad requests from many of her female viewers, she must have anticipated some sort of backlash.  Supporters of the candidates (particularly Sarah Palin’s) protested, and boycotted the show in an indication of their displeasure.  And the results of the protests made their mark–one USA Today-Gallup poll taken earlier this year indicated that between 2006 and Fall 2007, after Oprah had endorsed Obama, her favorability ratings dropped from 74 to 66 percent.  (Apparently, though, her gamble paid off:  according to this source, Oprah was responsible for bringing in approximately 1 million votes for the Obama campaign during the Democratic primaries, which enabled his ultimate victory.) 

But I think this willing sacrifice on her part (to “take one for the team” so the team will win) is emblematic of a major change in what I call “La Vida Oprah.”  While her life has always informed her work, and vice versa, small stress fractures are beginning to appear as she attempts to maintain the delicate balance between the two.  Why?  I think it is because she has realized that the authenticity of her mission, the show’s motto, “live your best life” is more important than her ratings.  Thus, she chose a work that had a profound influence on her own life, Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth: Awakening to Life’s Purpose for her book club, despite the displeasure from many of her fans about choosing piece of writing about new age spirituality.  And then, she chose Barack Obama as her candidate, because she thought it would be best for the country to have him as President–despite the fact that she lost the very high viewership numbers his appearance on her show during the campaign (as well as Hillary Clinton’s, John McCain’s, and Sarah Palin’s) would have guaranteed.  My own personal hope is that Oprah will extend her dedication to doing what she thinks is best (instead of what is popular) by cancelling her “Favorite Things” segment, where the display of excess and emphasis on “stuff” has always seemed to run counter to her true message–and is especially troublesome during this time of economic crisis.  Despite the fact that she gives the “stuff” to her on-set audience for free, her “Favorite Things” episodes have often seemed somewhat hypocritical, especially when they have aired within a week or two of stories about people living beyond their means/losing their homes, or financial guru Suze Orman’s very firm messages about fiscal discipline and avoiding the trap of “keeping up with the Joneses.”  

Despite this small quibble of mine, I must admit, there is a certain magic in this new La Vida Oprah.  Not the tingly, awe-inspiring kind, but something that more closely resembles hope.  Because by living her best life, it benefits us all–we have a new President-elect to show for it.  So I say, Viva la Vida.  (Thanks, Coldplay.)


1 Comment so far
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Talk of the Church of Oprah has been around for several years. Consider this: Oprah has a message, “Live your best life”, she has her disciples – Rachel Ray, Dr. Oz, Bob Greene, Suze Orman and Co. to spread the word and now, she has her miracle in President-Elect Obama. Could Oprah be the second coming?

Would it be so wrong if modern day religions and Oprah shared the same message? I mean, the word of Oprah is accessible daily on television, radio and in newsstands and instantaneously online, how many people go to church, synagogue or read the bible or torah that often?

Maybe the thought of Oprah as a spiritual leader is blasphemy? I could quite possibly be booking my one-way ticket to hell right now and not even realize that I don’t have a hand basket that matches my slippers.

Or perhaps Oprah is the new Disney?

Comment by JBL

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