Barack Obama found the perfect booster in Oprah Winfrey. Not only can she fill a football stadium with 30,000 adoring people and put a hammerlock on a news cycle, she specializes in the warm-and-fuzzy uplift that is the very foundation of Obama’s candidacy.
This was the pontiff of daytime television bestowing secular sainthood on the golden child of latterday liberalism. “For there is born to you this day a savior.” The Oprah- Obama match is made not quite in heaven, but in a haze of inspirational piety with heavy religious overtones. People had “Oprah for V.P.” buttons at this past weekend’s rallies. The Queen of All Media surely would never accept such a demotion. But Obama-Winfrey would make a natural ticket. They are both African- Americans with major racial crossover appeal. They are arguably the nation’s biggest celebrities in their respective fields of media and politics. And they offer affirming messages of hope and self-help.
In her stump speeches on Obama’s behalf, Oprah zeroed in on the heart of the matter: Obama’s post-political messianism. In South Carolina, she declared that it isn’t enough for candidates to tell the truth, “We need politicians who know how to be the truth.” One wonders if in the news reports, it were merely a transcription error that “the truth” wasn’t rendered in divinized capital letters.
Michelle Obama spoke in the same terms: “We need a leader who’s going to touch our souls. Who’s going to make us feel differently about one another. Who’s going to remind us that we are one another’s keepers. That we are only as strong as the weakest among us.”
This isn’t merely overpromising. It’s a creepy inflation of a political figure into a secular version of the Second Coming. Oprah implied the same thing, quoting a film in which an old, long-suffering woman asks every child she meets — in a question fraught with messianic symbolism — "Are you the one?" Oprah continued, referring to Obama, “It’s a question the entire nation is asking — is he the one? South Carolina — I do believe he’s the one.”
Is he really? It’s hard enough for a presidential candidate to have a plan to save Social Security and stabilize Iraq, let alone embody the truth and touch our souls. Obama plays into this messianism because it’s what gives his candidacy its unique appeal. Otherwise, he has a collection of pedestrian Democratic positions.
It’s the promise to redeem our politics, “to create a kingdom right here on earth” — as he put it at a church event in South Carolina a few weeks ago — that accentuates his status as a different kind of candidate. The American left might be overwhelmingly secular, but it still has religious impulses, which tend to be channeled into their leaders.
Democrats want to revere their candidates. This has at least been the case since John F. Kennedy, the martyred president who embodied all that would have been good and true about America if it hadn’t taken a catastrophic wrong turn with his death. Obama offers Democrats the opportunity to fall in love all over again.
This is because he is relatively unsullied by politics. Hillary Clinton is not. No one could invest millenarian aspirations in Clinton. She has been attacked, and has attacked in turn too much. She has compromised too much. She has positioned herself with an eye to practical political considerations too much. Her goal isn’t to transform politics — she’s much too realistic for that — but to move public policy in a leftward direction that she thinks would help people’s lives. This is the stuff of grubby, everyday politics, and there is no wonder Oprah wants nothing to do with it, not with the ideal of an Obama presidency shimmering off in the distance.
Who knows how much Oprah’s endorsement will help Obama? This much is certain. If she helps get him elected president and expects politics as usual to dissipate under his glorious dispensation, she will be disappointed.