Let’s begin with one simple fact: Oprah Winfrey, the media mogul who rose from abject poverty to become one of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the world, has not announced her candidacy for President of the United States. All she did was accept an award commemorating her incredible achievements in film and television. Her acceptance speech was powerful and inspiring, letter-perfect for the cultural moment in America, but, well… she’s Oprah. No one should expect otherwise, and if the result was Americans crying out for her to hold leadership (and various sources saying she’s considering it) we shouldn’t be surprised. But Oprah has not publicly said she wants to be President.
With that out of the way… There is no reason Oprah Winfrey should not be the next President of the United States. For starters, there is no greater irony than the nation currently headed by Donald J. Trump asking “is Oprah qualified?” Qualified to what? Undermine her nation and her own party with self-obsessed impulsive tweets? Compare dick sizes with foreign despots? Watch television all day? I’m pretty confident Oprah can outperform the current occupant of the Oval Office.
But to suggest that Oprah is only considered because Donald Trump lowered the bar (as the New York Times allowed Thomas Chatterson Williams to do) is both offensive and incorrect. Oprah was a viable candidate for President before Trump, and remains so in spite of — not because of — his calamitous ascent.
Who is Oprah Winfrey? We’ve established she’s the kind of rags-to-riches, self-made tycoon most American politicians bend over backwards to portray. Oprah went from wearing potato sacks on her grandmother’s farm to wearing a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and moving between multiple properties worldwide. The child of a poor, unwed mother and an unknown father, a teenage runaway who endured sexual, physical, and emotional abuse from multiple family members, a woman of color who rose through a media industry rife with bias and outright racism to help define the genre of daytime talk show — then redefine it when she felt the exploitative, tabloid format that made her rich was the wrong path. A social pioneer, she helped welcome LGBT people into mainstream acceptance (people forget it, but Oprah is the very person — playing a fictional role — to whom Ellen DeGeneres famously came out on television), brought her audience’s attention to health and social issues, championed authors and literature, and led a spiritual movement. She’s an Oscar-winning actress, a successful film and television producer, a publisher… and I’m just about out of room in this paragraph.
Certainly, there are those who say any candidate for President should demonstrate success in prior elected office. That’s a fair argument, but that horse has certainly left the barn. Others hold an apparently common spite toward the idea of television personalities — especially a talk show host — leading the nation. To this I say, why not?
Sure, the President might be a venerated role Americans treat with a sort of reverence, but the fact is our Presidents have always come from the wealthy class of their day. George Washington was a patriot and general, but he was also possibly the wealthiest man in the United States — he was the wealthiest President in history until Donald Trump, and would likely regain that title if we ever saw Trump’s actual balance sheets. Thomas Jefferson’s estate made him the third-wealthiest President to date; John Adams was the grandson of a wealthy dotort, the Bushes and Roosevelts were oil tycoons, JFK came out of finance. Trump is a fake real estate tycoon. Even Andrew Jackson, often held up as the first “everyman President,” was a wealthy landowner by the time he was elected — and currently stands at #5 in the list of wealthiest American Presidents.
If Presidents have historically risen from the ranks of their era’s wealthy and prominent people, then it would follow that in the 21st century, media personalities would hold that office. It’s far from unprecedented, even setting aside the present embarrassment. Ronald Reagan was an actor, though he did hold state office before moving to the Presidency. Actors like Sonny Bono, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jesse Ventura, Clint Eastwood, Helen Gahagan Douglas, and yes, Al Franken. None of them have been President, but none of them have accomplished half of what Oprah has.
And yes, while it’s true Oprah has not previously held elected office, she has demonstrated her judgment and leadership through her business empire. When her OWN television network was on the rocks, Oprah herself stepped into help its turnaround — a stark contrast to our current President, who’s principal business achievement is declaring bankruptcy six times and slowly losing the money his father left him.
Oprah’s success and judgement has not merely benefited herself. At its peak, Oprah’s Harpo Productions, Inc. employed more than 12,000 people. Oprah spent years basically manufacturing celebrities, and the household names that came out of Harpo include Rachael Ray, Nate Berkus, Iyanla Vanzant, Doctors Phil and Oz, Suze Orman, Gayle King, and Bob Greene. America could do a lot worse than to hop on Oprah’s coattails.
Now, does all of this mean Oprah would be a great President? Of course not. Does running a successful media empire — and building a $3 billion fortune based on nothing but charisma and sound business judgment — mean she can navigate diplomatic relations with foreign heads of state, negotiate policy with Congress, or command the armed forces in the event of a military conflict? No. But what Oprah has demonstrated throughout her life is the ability to learn, to engage, and to apply herself to be the best at anything she undertakes. Unlike the current President, Oprah would bring an open mind and a vast intellect to the challenges of the Presidency. No one can say she’d be the best President ever, but I feel safe believing she’d outperform at least half the list.
So, is she my first choice for President? No, not really. But the woman has been an outstanding success at everything she’s ever done. Why shouldn’t we give her the keys?
If Oprah Winfrey announces her candidacy, I think America would do best to take a lesson from Stedman: Smile, keep quiet, and enjoy the benefits while Oprah makes all the decisions.
Header image from Wikimedia Commons.