In 2004, at the Democratic National Convention, an Illinois state legislator (and US Senate candidate) named Barack Obama stood up before a Boston crowd, and gave a keynote speech that none of us who saw it will ever, ever forget. He began by telling his story–start with your personal narrative, says every speechwriter ever–about his unorthodox family and unlikely rise to prominence. He tied his own tale, a story of hard work and sacrifice and the dream of a better future, to the stories of people he’d met all across America. He offered the obligatory keynote speaker praise for the actual Democratic nominee, John Kerry. And then he spoke of “the audacity of hope, hope in the face of difficulty.” It was a powerful, inspiring speech, and it was delivered by an African-American guy with a funny name that I’d never heard of before. The living embodiment of the American dream. A poor kid from a fractured family, who genuinely believed that through hard work and dedication, anything was possible.
I remember telling my wife as the speech finished, “that’s the guy. If Kerry loses, this guy will run for President in 2008, and he will win. This may be the next President of the United States.”
I didn’t watch the Golden Globes last night. I never do. But my Facebook page blew up with people saying things like ‘did you see Oprah last night? OMG!’ Positive and negative; I have conservative friends who didn’t like it. So this morning, I went to YouTube, and was maybe the nine trillionth viewer of the speech. Oprah Winfrey’s acceptance speech, after winning the Cecil B. DeMille award. Here it is.
Notice what she does. She starts with her personal narrative, a wonderful story about watching Sidney Poitier win an Oscar, and how she watched with her bone-tired, working class, single mother Mom. She tied that story to other narratives, about civil rights heroine Recy Taylor, a powerful, ultimately inspiring story that also tied together civil rights and feminism. She then made reference to the struggles of women all across the country. And she brought the speech to a rousing conclusion, about hope for the future and the powerful voices opposing sexual harassment.
And the crowd reaction was kind of interesting. It wasn’t a glamorous, Hollywood-celebrating night. The women were all in black dresses, turning haute couture into political engagement. The audience gave Oprah repeated standing ovations, but people seemed unclear about whether to sit down afterwards, or just stay standing. It was awkward; some people standing, others popping up and down.
Acceptance speeches on award shows are typically short; 30-45 seconds. They do give a little more latitude for big career lifetime achievement awards, like the DeMille. Oprah spoke for just shy of ten minutes. And no, the orchestra did not try to play her off. She commanded the stage, and the reaction to her presence and to her speech was rapturous.
In his opening monologue, Seth Meyers (who was terrific, I thought), mentioned his 2011 speech at the White House Correspondents Dinner. In that speech, Meyers rather famously made fun of Donald Trump, who was there. In Joshua Green’s book Devil’s Bargain, Green describes how angry Trump became during the speech, which he found insulting and humiliating. According to Green, Meyers’ monologue was what prompted Trump’s decision to run for President.
So, last night, Meyers addressed Oprah Winfrey directly:
Oprah, while I have you, in 2011 I told some jokes about our current president at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner — jokes about how he was unqualified to be president — and some have said that night convinced him to run. So if that’s true, I just want to say: Oprah, you will never be president! You do not have what it takes!
An “Oprah running for President joke.” Followed, fwiw, by a jab at Tom Hanks. “And Hanks! You will never be Vice-President!” Ha ha. Ha.
And then, Oprah gave an absolutely terrific political speech. And, yes, it was intentionally political; the Golden Globes last night became a political event, what with all the black dresses, and constant references to l’affair Weinstein. And that was great, though I imagine a Hollywood exercise in self-congratulation is a weird venue for a political rally. Oprah’s speech, in structure, directly mirrors one of the greatest political speeches of all time; Obama’s, in 2004. It was shorter, of course, but it had all the elements: personal narrative, inspiring historical anecdotes, tributes to the hard-working Americans you’re reaching out to, with a final uplifting appeal to hope. (Best of all, not a single mention of John Kerry.)
I begin every morning by looking at a dozen political websites: Salon, Politico, Slate, Vox, Daily Beast, the NYT and WP. This morning, every one of them had a story about Oprah’s speech, and every one was speculating about two questions: is Oprah Winfrey–bright, accomplished African-American with a funny name–going to run for President in 2020? And if she runs, can she win.
And, honestly, ask yourself this question. As Alex Burns put it in the New York Times: “Ms. Winfrey could face a difficult fight for the Democratic nomination, especially against _______. It’s difficult to finish that sentence.” Indeed. Gillibrand? Warren? Booker?
Oprah has built an entire career on her unique ability to connect to working class women. She’s, like, the definition of empathetic. She’s certainly willing to face tough issues, and to confront difficult subjects. She’s also not a political figure. She’s a celebrity. Are outsiders in? She’s certainly able to self-fund a campaign. She’d be like Roosevelt; a rich person who can plausibly engage with not-rich people. Her big issue, if she ran, would be sexual harassment. Running against a serial sexual predator like Trump, she’d be a potent voice for women, and women’s empowerment. Will guys vote for her? Over Trump; oh, heck yes.
In a general election, as things currently stand, she would crush Donald Trump. I’m talking a 65-35 edge, electoral college sweep kind of landslide. Her base would be working class women. If she sweeps that demo, plus people of color, plus progressives, plus young people, plus college-educated people, and breaks even against white men, it’s a tsunami.
And nobody hates her, really. I can’t think of a soul. She may be accused of being a lightweight, of not being a policy wonk. My conservative friends thought her speech last night bashed men, which it totally didn’t; I think that’s more fear than anything. But she’s a great public speaker, and she’s certainly smart enough to bone up on the political stuff.
I don’t know what she’s thinking, or what she will decide. I do think she’d make a formidable candidate, and that she would clobber Donald Trump in a general election. She’ll be 65 in 2020, and may decide she’d just as soon retire. Or she may just decide to keep doing with her life what she’s already doing. But, oh my gosh, if she runs. . .