Eleven months ago this week in December, 2007, when Senator Barack Obama was considered a long shot, an absolute outsider in the race for the Democratic Party nomination for president of the United States, a certain person went to Des Moines, Iowa, and started campaigning for him. That was Oprah Winfrey.
According to news reports at the time, about 18,000 people showed up at an event where Winfrey introduced Obama and talked up his credentials. Those same reports often dwelled on the issue of "celebrity endorsement" of politicians. Pundits and university professors were consulted. The consensus was that a celebrity endorsement matters little in politics. Obama was still considered unlikely to win the Iowa caucus.
Thing is, Oprah Winfrey is not like any other celebrity. In fact, the TV-celebrity element is only a small part of what Oprah represents. Oprah and The Oprah Winfrey Show (Monday to Friday, CTV, 4 p.m.) didn't get Obama elected, but they helped. There's a synergy between Oprah's role in the American culture and the emergence of Obama as the new leader for a new era. What might happen under Obama is the Oprah-ization of the United States.
It's not just that Winfrey is a representative figure in the U.S. - she was born in Mississippi in 1954, the year that U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka ended racial segregation in schools and other public facilities. It's that she represents a personal and intellectual curiosity and generosity that has been missing in the U.S. in recent years. She has made philanthropy and the reading of books a core part of her TV show and media empire.
Not long ago, Maureen Dowd of The New York times wrote of Winfrey, "She is the top alpha female in this country. She has more credibility than the president." Now, Winfrey has helped put in power a president who reflects her views, her vision, her hopes.
People can complain legitimately about some of what Winfrey has unleashed on the U.S. through her show - the confessional interviews that can degenerate into self-absorbed nonsense, the fad diets and the ego that is Dr. Phil. But through her TV show, Winfrey has steadfastly represented dissension in the U.S. A few years ago, in his book Dude, Where's My Country? Michael Moore declared that he really wanted Oprah Winfrey to run for president. He said she'd win by a landslide. He even launched a draft Oprah campaign on his website. He never really believed that she'd do it, but now Obama captures what Oprah represents.
Back in 2003, when the U.S. was on the cusp of invading Iraq, Winfrey opened her daily show with a question, and the question was the theme of the show: "Why do so many hate the United States?" In the studio, she had Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern studies, and Thomas Friedman, a New York Times columnist. Friedman had just finished a documentary in which he interviewed numerous Arabs in the United States and around the world in search of answers about why the Sept. 11 attacks happened.
That program, much-attacked by the right in the U.S., offered a distinct alternative to the perspective presented by every mainstream American broadcaster at the time. The message - and there certainly was a message - was that war against Iraq would, as Winfrey put it, "trigger many more problems in the long term." The program wasn't anti-war. It asked the viewers to think about the limits of the use of force. It required viewers to absorb information about how other countries perceive the United States. It created space for dissent.
After that December, 2007, foray into Iowa, Oprah pulled back from campaigning directly for Barack Obama. But the TV show she created, moulded and used to change the United States for the better - especially that room for dissent she created on her show - eventually elected Obama.