I get why Oprah Winfrey is “actively thinking” about running for president (whatever that means). If a man who apparently spends half his day watching TV shows and proclaiming his own genius can do it, why can’t any old billionaire take the White House?
Here’s the (wet-blanket) truth: Fighting Donald Trump to his political death would destroy Oprah’s image and her brand, and in the end it wouldn’t be worth it. Which is why I think she won’t make the jump to politics, at least not in 2020. She’s too smart.
I say this as one of those conservatives who likes Oprah. Always have. Sure, she gets into goofy mumbo jumbo like a lot of rich celebrities—remember the Open Heart Journaling Sessions?—but I think she’s a sincere person. Her rise is an awe-inspiring rags-to-riches story, the stuff of incredible nominating convention films: born in poverty in Mississippi, raised by a single mom in Milwaukee, self-made-millionaire at age 32. More to the point, I think she could win the nomination of the Democratic Party and could even defeat Trump in a general election, assuming he makes it that far. But even if she could pull it off, this won’t be the kind of high-minded, issues-driven election she’d want to win. It’s gonna be a street brawl. Does Oprah really want to go through all that?
In a way, she faces the same decision as the one facing former Vice President Joe Biden. Right now, both are beloved citizens—probably with favorable ratings in the 60s or 70s. That’s a hard achievement in these polarized times, and it should not be cast aside lightly. Oprah is already a powerful figure. Persuasive. Though obviously a liberal, she’s seen as above petty politics. Republicans, Democrats and independents all have affection for her. She lives a comfortable life and can command attention on any issue, whenever she wants.
All that changes the day she becomes a candidate for public office. She will instantly become a partisan, divisive, controversial figure. Her past will be dredged up and distorted. And it won’t take a “very stable genius” to make that happen.
The first thing even the most incompetent Republican campaign team will encourage, and what the media will insist on, is that Oprah take positions on issues sure to alienate half of the country. Take the biggest of them all: abortion. We can assume Oprah favors abortion rights, but the details matter: Does that include support for partial birth abortion? Does she support aborting children with Down’s syndrome? Oprah may have a very moving answer to these questions, but a lot of people will tune her out in an instant. She’s not used to that. She’s not going to like being called a baby killer.
And then there are the other issues on which she’ll have to sound reasonably knowledgeable. What’s her tax plan? How would she fix Social Security? Does Oprah have a foreign policy? How does she plan to solve, say, the crisis in Yemen? Is her policy team going to be of the Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton variety or something different? If so, what?
As a person whose name and image are synonymous with sincerity and openness, and indeed have been built on those qualities, Oprah doesn’t have the luxury to just sway away inconvenient questions like Trump does. Or to lie with impunity and not face the consequences.
She would face all kind of uncomfortable lines of inquiry: Where are her tax returns? What does she spend on charity? How many of her staff members are paid fair wages? Are women paid less than men? How often has she mingled with or defended Harvey Weinstein? How many of her employees have signed confidentiality agreements? Will she waive them? Has anyone ever sued her? How many homes does she have? Does she “need” that many? What has she invested in that might go against her “Super Soul Sunday” persona? How much has she charged people for “life classes” or “lectures” and have any of them felt ripped off after paying for them?
Oprah Inc. will come under unprecedented inspection. She’s not going to like that.
And then there’s Stedman Graham, her longtime partner. We can almost see the Trump tweet being formed—it’s a question people have asked for years—“What’s the deal with this guy?” Will Stedman endure a very public dissection of his business affairs and personal relationships? There has got to be one or two or three disgruntled Oprah employees who’d love to publicize gossip about the two of them. He’s not going to like that very much, either.
These are all questions that rival Democrats with their own ambitions will raise, and media outlets simply doing their due diligence will feel compelled to explore. And just wait until Trump leans in.
In this regard, Trump’s utter shamelessness, so often his weakness, is a political strength. There will be no gutter too low for him to delve.
How soon will it be before Kitty Kelley’s unflattering biography of Oprah makes its first appearance on Trump’s Twitter feed? We will all be hearing, and reacting to, wild, if totally false, allegations about weird confidentiality agreements, or lesbian flings, or any other kooky claim Trump and his Trumpbots can conjure. (Kelly apparently wrote that some family members “doubt” Oprah’s molestation claims. Is that really true?) And what about the dead baby at Oprah’s School for Girls? Where was she, for that matter, during the Kennedy assassination?
There will be nothing Oprah and her backers won’t be forced to denounce, respond to, pretend to ignore or fight back against. Oprah may have great answers to all of these questions. She may be able to rise above them. But she is a human being with a conscience. The grind will wear her down. It will take off some of her glow, perhaps forever. And it won’t be fun. There won’t be a cheering, sympathetic Hollywood audience following Oprah through the bitter colds of Iowa or New Hampshire.
I know what Oprah supporters might still be thinking. Yes, it will be tough. Yes, it will be ugly. Yes, it might be embarrassing. But if she can win, it will be worth it.
Sadly, I don’t agree. Not in this election cycle. Not in this climate. If unfairly so, Oprah would emerge with nearly half the country believing the worst about her. She would be hated and despised by some of the very people who right now are open to hearing her message. People who, frankly, need to hear her message of self-improvement and respect for diversity.
Even if she won the most powerful office in the world, she would compromise something more precious: the moral authority that millions of people across race, religion, political affiliation, and geographic region have given her. She can wield that power much more effectively now as a supporter of a candidate or a cause than as a candidate herself.
In short, the country needs Oprah more where she is than it does where she might be tempted to go. Please, Oprah: Don’t do it.