Americans must never again put their country’s fate in the hands of a person who tweets about the size of his brain, but a chat show host is no replacement, writes Bette Browne
Oprah Winfrey is an acclaimed philanthropist, humanitarian, and global television star but she should never become president of the US — simply because she is not a politician.
Oprah’s inspiring speech at the Golden Globe awards prompted many Americans, especially Democrats, to suggest she should now run for the White House in 2020.
Actress Meryl Streep gushed: “She launched a rocket tonight. I want her to run for president. I don’t think she had any intention. But now she doesn’t have a choice.”
Oh, but she does have a choice, and so do Americans. And it’s a choice that must not be swayed next time round by celebrities or TV stars or political novices.
Donald Trump’s presidency should already have taught voters that climate change matters, that human rights cannot be ignored, that immigrants cannot be vilified or the disabled mocked, and that a petulant tweet has the potential to upend global stability.
Americans must never again put the fate of their country and the world in the hands of someone who tweets about the size of his brain and the size of his country’s nuclear button.
No matter how well- (or ill-) intentioned a candidate may be, politics is not a profession for novices and, in the 2020 race, Americans must back politicians who have spent their lives down in the trenches.
There may not be much glamour down there but that’s where they meet the country’s forgotten voters, those who lack healthcare or proper paying jobs or education or a future for their children in the richest country in the world.
It’s down in the trenches, too, that politicians learn that 41m of their fellows Americans are living in poverty, according to the US Census Bureau, a figure so frightening it is now being investigated by a UN team.
To be fair, Oprah knows first-hand what grinding poverty looks like, because she was born into it in Mississippi 64 years ago.
However, that does not mean she has the political skills to work against vested interests and powerful lobby groups in the US Congress to push legislation that addresses the imbalances in wages and power and educational opportunity that define too much of modern America.
Empathy is not enough anymore. As one US friend said about the calls for Oprah to declare her candidacy: “Just because a performer says things you agree with does not make him or her a great leader.”
And America needs powerful leaders, not powerful celebrities. It needs tough politicians who have come up the hard way and have developed a tough spine and a fighting spirit.
Not that such politicians are easy to find anywhere, and especially in a country where the system is stacked against the candidate with a keen conscience and in favour of the one with a thick wallet.
Indeed, it’s not ‘reality TV politics’ that’s necessarily America’s worst enemy. Its worst enemy is the staggering amounts of money required to run for high office and achieve political name recognition in a country of 350m people. Now and again someone does slip through the net, but even Barack Obama had to spend over $1bn (€830m) from small and large donors in his 2012 re-election.
Billionaire Donald Trump famously said he would spend none of his own money on his campaign, but he ended up contributing $65m of its almost $1bn cost, with wealthy donors and political action committees funding most of the rest of the bill.
Naturally, such donors expect a return on their investment, be it from Republican or Democratic candidates, and they usually get it.
In Trump’s case, they got it in spades with taxation changes (from which his own family is set to benefit by over $1bn). The US Tax Policy Center says that, by 2027, under his recent tax ‘reform’ Americans on the lowest incomes will end up paying more tax each year, while the top 1% will be saving $40,000 and the top 0.1% will be saving $200,000.
Not that it’s all Trump’s fault, of course. The gulf between the very rich and the middle class and between the middle class and the very poor has been widening too under Democratic administrations.
In its 2016 State of the Nation review, the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality placed the US at the bottom of the league table of 10 well-off countries in terms of the extent of its income and wealth inequality.
And now, instead of the hard slog of political change, Americans are suggesting that what’s needed is another billionaire political novice.
Oprah might do a fine job. But that’s hardly the point. Her job is not politics. Good statesmen and women come not from the boardroom or the green room but from the tough grind of professional politics.
Granted, politicians, like people in other professions, can be good or bad at their job. A New York friend summed it up for me this way: “I think Americans don’t trust professional politicians because of all the corruption, fraud, and kickbacks. We don’t seem to have produced any great statesmen or women for some time. Oprah for president is just the latest example of the frustrations that many feel.”
All of which is true. Pinning the title “professional politician” on someone doesn’t necessarily mean the country’s problems will be nearer to resolution. But it’s far better than fielding celebrities to do the job.
However, some Democrats, it seems, want a candidate who might guarantee an easy win in 2020. Yet there is no such thing in politics as an easy win. Each vote must be hard won in every election.
Democrats, especially, should remember that when Hillary Clinton largely ignored campaigning in ‘safe’ states such as Wisconsin and Michigan, it sealed her loss. Trump went on to win the presidency by just 77,000 votes, a margin he secured by getting voters out in Wisconsin and Michigan — as well as Pennsylvania.
There’s an argument, too, that says the political climate is much tougher in America now and it’s tougher to break into politics because it requires so much money. And, yes, it is tough but it’s hardly any tougher than when seasoned politicians such as President Lyndon Johnson successfully fought to introduce civil rights legislation amid the violent turmoil of the 60s.
That’s what many professional politicians did back then and that’s what they should be capable of doing now instead of outsourcing the job to celebrities or Wall Street brokers.
However, if voters still insist that Oprah should be a candidate in 2020, she would at least come with the advantage of knowing what hard work is like, as well as having direct experience of the corrosive effects of inequality in America.
She was born in 1954 into the poor rural town of Kosciusko, Mississippi. She experienced considerable hardship during her childhood. She said she was raped at the age of nine, something she announced to her viewers on a 1986 episode of her TV show on sexual abuse. She also became pregnant at 14. Her son died in infancy.
Her career began when she landed a job in radio while still in secondary school and began co-anchoring the local evening news at the age of 19.
In 1984, at the age of 30, she was invited to Chicago to host a faltering morning programme. In less than a year, she turned it into the hottest show in town. In September 1985, it was renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show and went on to make her a millionaire at the age of 32.
Forbes’s international rich list named Oprah the world’s only black billionaire from 2004 to 2006 and the first black woman billionaire in world history. She will turn 64 later this month, and her net worth now stands at $2.8bn.
Neither is Oprah a complete political novice. She spearheaded a campaign to establish a database of convicted child abusers and, in 1993, Democratic president Bill Clinton signed what became known as the ‘Oprah Bill’ into law, establishing the national database she had sought.
In 2013, Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is awarded annually for “meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to
cultural or other significant public or private endeavors”.
If Oprah were to run for the White House she would also come, like Trump, with a Co Clare connection — one of her favourite ways to relax is by summoning up a picture of Doolin showing an abandoned castle set amid lush green fields facing the Atlantic waters with the Aran Islands on the horizon. She snapped the scene while travelling in Ireland a number of years ago and said of it in 2013 on her website: “Doolin, Ireland. While driving through Ireland, I came across this abandoned castle.
“The picture I captured has become the place I mentally go to when I need a break from the rest of the world.”
All of which suggests Oprah herself might also feel far happier if Americans just allowed her to enjoy the delights of Doolin in 2020.