It didn’t take long for “Oprah in 2020” to start trending after the one-named icon’s stirring Golden Globes speech on Sunday night.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering his gift for exploiting political and cultural fault lines, one of the first to connect the media and philanthropic queen to electoral gold was none other than Donald Trump, who has said in the past that the two on a presidential ticket would win “easily.”
Maybe the president really is the “very stable genius” he says he is.
But did Trump also see her as the competition that could be his undoing?
All those Americans who lobbed familiar insults at multimillionaire celebrities using their moment in the Golden Globes spotlight to make a personal, social or political statement (“what do they know … they should stick to entertainment”) may be criticizing Oprah as stateswoman now. They used the same criticism against then-candidate Barack Obama.
Those detractors are missing the point.
Watch: Nearly One Year Into His Presidency, How Congress Reacted to Trump
No line in the sand
When the ultimate celebrity was elected as president of the United States in 2016, the line dividing show biz and politics was smudged. And in the week when the book “Fire and Fury,” featuring the showmanship of Donald Trump, rivaled the annual Hollywood glitz-fest in the headlines, it was permanently obliterated.
Whether you think his successful candidacy set the standard or lowered the bar, Trump has solidified Winfrey’s viability as a serious presidential candidate. An African-American woman taking that path would have to be an overachiever, as is so often the case. Winfrey has more than proven herself, taking up a notch — or two, or 100 — all the qualities that elevated Trump.
Though Trump used success in business to trump his lack of experience in politics, he had an ample inheritance from dad as a head start. Winfrey made her money — in publishing, television and movie production and more — the old-fashioned way. She earned it in true all-American, rags-to-riches fashion despite the historical obstacles of racism and sexism that faced an African-American girl born in the South to a single mother. It was her intelligence and talent, savvy and grit that led to her continued success.
Philanthropy? During the last presidential campaign, when the charity of the Donald J. Trump Foundation was examined under a thoroughly documented and finely reported microscope in The Washington Post, it turned out to be less than met the eye.
Winfrey has donated millions directly to charities and organizations and through her foundations, and in 2007 established the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa, which she has continued to support financially and spiritually. In 2016, I attended the inspiring commencement speech she delivered at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina, where the accomplishments of several of those young women pointed to bright futures.
Then, there is the vision thing. While “hope and change” was the message that drove Winfrey-backed candidate Obama’s rise, the current president also had a vision. “Make America Great Again,” laid out in a dark, dystopian Inauguration Day speech, has turned out to be divisive, though it still resonates with Trump’s unshakable base.
Contrast that with Winfrey’s. In accepting her Cecil B. DeMille lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes, as the first African-American to win that honor, she skillfully did what she has always done. She was inclusive of those not in the star-studded room, and never lectured in the tone that gets many a privileged celebrity in trouble.
“I want tonight to express gratitude to all the women who have endured years of abuse and assault because they, like my mother, had children to feed and bills to pay and dreams to pursue,” she said. “They’re the women whose names we’ll never know. They are domestic workers and farm workers. They are working in factories and they work in restaurants and they’re in academia, engineering, medicine, and science. They’re part of the world of tech and politics and business. They’re our athletes in the Olympics and they’re our soldiers in the military.”
Not incidentally, the list includes the legions who watched her shows, read her magazine and consider her a trusted if long-distance friend.
Her speech honored the fight of those, like Recy Taylor and Rosa Parks, who found justice elusive but paved the way. Winfrey favored an optimistic future, pointing to better days ahead because of their example and sacrifice.
Winfrey talked about her own journey, from the little girl with dreams, watching role model Sidney Poitier, beautiful and proud, accepting his groundbreaking Academy Award, and acknowledged the effect her moment might have for other young people with dreams.
“I want all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon,” she said. “And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight, and some pretty phenomenal men, fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say ‘Me too’ again.”
It was one of the few times she referenced herself, preferring to praise others, not something in President Trump’s playbook.
Will Winfrey run? Though she has demurred, longtime partner Stedman Graham tantalizingly told the Los Angeles Times, “It’s up to the people.” He said, “She would absolutely do it.”
Would this be the perfect time for such a reckoning?
Trump should be thanking Oprah Winfrey. Her speech, despite the praise for the free press the president loathes and her battle cry that “time’s up” for those accused of sexual assault — a charge that cuts mighty close to the White House — was so powerful it might be the only thing to take attention away from the charges so unflatteringly laid out in “Fire and Fury.”
The downside for Trump? Now he’ll be asked about his thoughts on his fantasy running mate as a 2020 opponent, or if his presidency so far is an argument against the idea of a celebrity leading the free world.
Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.