Oprah Winfrey accepted the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement at the nationally televised Golden Globes Awards on Sunday night, and in the spirit of Mr. DeMille, she was ready for her close-up. Maybe even a little too ready. Oprah (does anyone ever call her Winfrey after the first reference?) delivered a stirring speech that exceeded its high expectations — a mash-up of heart-rending anecdotes, much-needed American history lessons, shout-outs to the power of uplifting role models and a sharp rebuke to the worst villains of entrenched patriarchy.
“For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dare speak the truth to the power of those men,” Oprah said, stabbing the Hollywood air with a righteous rhetorical might that has been mostly absent from the American scene for the last, oh, 354 days or so. “But their time is up. Their time is up!”
And all those wonderful people out there in the dark went wild. Twitter feeds from Sunset Boulevard to Broad Street erupted with calls for Oprah to run for president in 2020, as a woman who not only promises to restore, at long last, some sense of decency to the White House but also as a giant killer who — unlike the uncharismatic dwarfs of post-Obama Democratic Party — would posterize Donald Trump in a slam-dunk election victory on 11/3/20. The reaction from the masses wasn’t so surprising, but what was a bit of a shock was how many members of the Beltway punditry crowd also jumped on the sudden Oprah bandwagon. Just one of dozens of examples was the Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Eugene Robinson (long admired in these parts), who offered all the expected caveats but then wrote that Oprah “ramped the energy and emotion even higher with her ‘new day is on the horizon’ proclamation, I no longer had any doubt that I was hearing political oratory of a very high order. And I confess, I had a lump in my throat.”
It’s funny, because so much of the political debate since the start of 2018 has been about the mental state of President Trump — over whether POTUS 45 has any spare change, so to speak, when the buck finally stops at his Oval Office desk. That’s a valid conversation, unfortunately — yet is there anyone less in touch with reality these days than so many of the 140 or so million American couch potatoes who actually elect our presidents?
We need to talk about Neil Postman yet again, because the famous 1985 prophecy by the late NYU professor and media critic — that America was slowly amusing itself to death by killing political discourse as electronic media took over our lives — is proving to be more and more true, every disastrous day of the 21st Century. Postman’s premise — inspired by George Orwell’s 1984 and the realities of our world when that year finally arrived — was that it was not Big Brother-style censorship but the desire for instant gratification and the intravenous drug of entertainment on a big screen that would ultimately strangle modern democracy.
“How delighted would be all the kings, czars and fuhrers of the past and commissars of the present,” Postman wrote, “to know that censorship is not a necessity when all political discourse takes the form of a jest.” Rather than Orwell, Postman’s muse was Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where the citizenry was too stoned on a drug called soma to care anymore about stuff like elections. “What Huxley feared,” according to Postman, “was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.”
Just 33 years later, America has a president who watches hours and hours of TV news every day — so-called “executive time” that prevents him from even getting to the Oval Office before 11 a.m. — and, if the more gossipy accounts can be believed, never ever cracks open a book. The Postman rings again.
But here’s the Big Reveal from Sunday’s Golden Globes: Trump’s nightmare presidency is probably not a one-off. Yes, The Donald’s embrace of leadership that’s all style and no substance (unless racism and xenophobia are what pass for substance these days) — knowing he can hold together his base with bombastic Twitter blasts and Nuremberg-style rallies attacking “fake news” on CNN without bothering to read up on how health care in America actually works — seems in many ways to be the grand fulfillment of the Amusing Ourselves to Death prophecy. But the long-term problem may not be Trump but us — both the people who put that buffoon in office and the people who can’t imagine ousting Trump two-and-a-half years from now unless America remains thoroughly entertained.
That’s the promise of Oprah, both for a soma-addicted electorate and for a media that — maybe subconsciously in some cases, but still… — is so stoned on the record-high ratings from The Donald and the mega-millions that came with him that it’s practically salivating already over the Trump-Winfrey debates two years from now. Oprah’s speech soared on Sunday in large part because it was so non-political — embracing the shouldn’t-be-controversial-yet-somehow-is idea that women should be free from predators, blended with uplifting stories of empowered everyday people. Meanwhile, American voters still know as much about Oprah’s ability to summon presidential resolve in dealing with North Korea or the generations-old mess in the Middle East, or her plans for tackling poverty or saving Obamacare and then taking it to the next level as they did when Seth Meyers walked out and told his first Harvey Weinstein joke. Like other billionaires, Oprah can be stellar on social justice and equality but practically Republican when her own billions are at stake.
Oprah on the death tax:
“I think it’s so irritating that once I die, 55 percent of my money goes to the United States government…You know why it’s so irritating? Because you already paid nearly 50 percent when the money was earned.” Archived by NAM,
— Grover Norquist (@GroverNorquist) January 8, 2018
Meanwhile, right-wingers are already circulating a photo of Oprah with Weinstein, a hint of the onslaught that will come, assuming that her more recent musings that maybe she actually does want to run for president come to fruition. And some of the knocks on candidate Oprah would be well-deserved — such as using her highly rated TV program to embrace the dangerous and arguably lethal anti-vaccination movement, as well as boosting a beyond-quackpottery book called The Secret whose “secret” is that you can get what you want by simply wishing for it, an idea that makes the scammy Trump University suddenly sound like Oxford. And yet, fittingly, this is The Secret promised by hopes for a future Winfrey administration, that American voters can somehow get what they want from Washington by simply wishing for it.
I want to be clear: I like Oprah and I loved her speech at the Golden Globes. There is much that is truly praiseworthy about her and her life story; she is a self-made billionaire who runs her business empire and supports worthy philanthropic causes 100 times better than Trump — but is Trump going to be our ridiculously low bar for all of other future presidents to hurdle? Like other CEOs, Winfrey has never had to do the hard, humbling and under-appreciated work of finding compromise among competing political interests.
We need many more women, many more people of color, and many, many more women of color holding political office in America. But when I look around at the dawn of 2018, I’m seeing scores of female candidates, including women of color, who are already out there in their rust-worn communities — women who don’t have a three-minute platform on NBC so instead they have to spend hour after hour trudging through ice and slush to ring hundreds of doorbells, night after night. Women like Nina Ahmad and Michele Lawrence and Molly Sheehan and Anna Payne. Nationally, Democrats may get a chance to vote in the 2020 primaries for women who’ve already done that kind of hard work for years to reach the penultimate level — Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren — and who each had to make difficult compromises to get there. The kind of compromises that will surely get thrown back at them on the campaign trail, while Oprah waltzes down the pristine path of celebrity.
This is the real worry when you step back and see the Oprah feeding frenzy for what it is. It’s that the very nature of how the average American views leadership — particularly, leadership in the Oval Office as gained by the two-year-long TV reality show that our presidential elections have become — has changed for permanently bad, that the genie of politics-as-another-way-to-keep-us-entertained (at least until the ICBMs start falling, anyway) will never get stuffed back into the bottle, and that Donald Trump isn’t an anomaly but simply the beginning of a long painful slide. Zombie George Washington, if could return to throw his decaying hat into the 2020 race, with his big bland ideas about liberal democracy, would bore us to tears in a modern dystopia of telegenic billionaire Big Brothers and Big Sisters. Are you not amused?