Oprah Winfrey rekindles hope for U.S presidency run
Oprah Winfrey for president? That was the burning question in American politics on Monday after the entertainment celebrity and entrepreneur delivered a barnstorming speech that had many hailing her as the antidote to Donald Trump.
Speaking at the Golden Globe awards in Hollywood on Sunday night, Winfrey moved the audience to tears as she praised women who have shared their stories of sexual harassment and abuse and declared that “a new day is on the horizon”.
In a measure of how Trump, a wealthy TV celebrity and political novice, has changed the rules of the game, there was an instant surge of tweets with the hashtags “Oprahforpresident” and “Oprah2020” urging Winfrey to run in the next election in November 2020.
After the speech, the actor and producer, who is chief executive of the OWN cable channel, told the Bloomberg news agency that she has no plans to run. But on Monday CNN reported that she is “actively thinking” about it, citing two close friends, whom it did not name. And the Los Angeles Times quoted Stedman Graham, Winfrey’s longtime partner, as saying: “It’s up to the people … She would absolutely do it.”
While she shares Trump’s status as a multimillionaire, Winfrey’s identity as a liberal African American woman – who pointedly defended the press in her speech – would have symbolic power against an incumbent who has admitted groping women, repeatedly stoked racial divisions and frequently attacked the “fake news” media.
But on another level, Winfrey, 63, raised in poverty by a single mother, could pitch herself as a consensus builder. As host of the top-rated talkshow The Oprah Winfrey Show for 25 years until 2011, she was in the living room of millions of Americans, carving out a persona as a good listener in touch with the average citizen, cutting across class, gender and race.
And Trump’s potential criticism of her has already been blunted. When he was contemplating a presidential run in 1999, he said Winfrey would be his first choice as a running mate. “I love Oprah,” he told CNN. “She’s popular, she’s brilliant, she’s a wonderful woman … That would be a pretty good ticket.”
Political analysts suggested the talk of a Winfrey run, presumably for the Democratic party, was more than mere hype. Robert Shrum, a Democratic consultant who worked on Al Gore and John Kerry’s election campaigns, said: “I’ve been sceptical of people with no political experience because recent experience shows we need someone with experience, but I think she can escape that. People like her, people trust her and she’s not a phony businesswoman.”
The Golden Globes, Hollywood’s first awards ceremony leading up to the Oscars, was dominated by the #MeToo movement after a year that saw dozens of powerful men in entertainment, politics and the media accused of sexual abuse or harassment. Winfrey, who along with most of the show’s other female attendees wore a black gown to show support for victims, was the first African American woman to receive the annual Cecil B DeMille award.
Winfrey told the gathering: “I want all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon! 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.”
The reaction was adulatory in the room and on social media. Actor Meryl Streep, who was at the awards, told the Washington Post: “She launched a rocket tonight. I want her to run for president. I don’t think she had any intention [of declaring]. But now she doesn’t have a choice.”
Khary Penebaker, a member of the Democratic National Committee, tweeted: “In a 9 minute speech, @Oprah was more presidential than the current occupant of the White House has been for an entire year.”
In the past Winfrey has lent her star power to Democratic presidential candidates: Barack Obama in 2008 and Hillary Clinton in 2016. But she has said she is not interested in running for president.
She was Oscar nominated in 1986 for her role in The Color Purple, which she later helped finance as a Broadway musical. She produced and acted in the 2014 civil rights movie Selma and 2017’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Winfrey is currently a “special correspondent” for the CBS news magazine 60 Minutes and an investor in companies including Weight Watchers.
Forbes magazine last year estimated her net worth at $3bn and ranked her third on its list of the America’s richest self-made women. But she would face a gruelling cycle of debates, caucuses and primaries, an expectation that she would release her tax returns and the forensic scrutiny of her private life that comes with all presidential runs.
Michael Cornfield, associate professor of political management at George Washington University, said: “It depends on her capacity to put together a good team. Her oratorical skills are an obvious asset and she has a ready-made audience, but it takes more than that to get the nomination and get elected. We don’t know from here whether she’s interested but she has plenty of time.”
The flurry of speculation around Winfrey comes after Trump powered his successful 2016 campaign on the back of his reputation from the reality TV show The Apprentice and as Hollywood star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is also said to be considering a White House run. Some commentators warned of the dangers of embracing fame at the expense of political pedigree or expertise.
Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution thinktank in Washington and former policy adviser to President Bill Clinton, said: “If the idea that anyone with celebrity and 100% name recognition can be president is the legacy of our misbegotten times, that would be the most pernicious idea of all. The contempt for the art of politics has held sway on one side of the political aisle; if it takes hold on the other, God save us.”