Is the Celebrity Presidency Here to Stay?

Oprah Winfrey’s powerful speech at this year’s Golden Globe Awards has rightfully created a buzz. She clearly and forcefully articulated many of the values much of the nation had already come to identify with her over the course of her career as a talk show host, as well as the star of movies such as The Color Purple.

What is more surprising, to me at least, is that the speech is being described by some as the possible beginning of a presidential bid by Winfrey. She is reportedly considering this possibility. If true, her Cecil B. Demille Award acceptance speech might go down in history as a far more important moment than we now realize.

I first heard Oprah mentioned seriously as a possible 2020 contender while staying at a friend’s house a few months ago. My friend and her daughter were both convinced she would make an excellent candidate. My friend seemed more focused on defeating Donald Trump and getting a woman into office, while her daughter viewed Winfrey’s successful career as evidence she was eminently qualified. I, on the other hand, was equally adamant that a decision by the Democrats to follow the Republican’s lead by going with another celebrity, even if one with demonstrably stronger business skills and situational awareness, would be a huge mistake.

Now I want to be clear. I readily acknowledge that Oprah Winfrey would be a huge improvement over the current occupant of the White House. She might even prove to be a great president. Her time as a talk show host is indication enough that she has a far greater tolerance for nuance than Donald Trump. In addition, her book club proved she also has at least some appreciation for reading.

These are two qualities a president needs. That these qualities happen to also be ones that ideally every citizen should possess in at least some measure is, sadly, evidence of just how low the bar has been lowered when it comes to our expectations for what is one of the most difficult jobs on earth. Above average leaders that showed us more than just a willingness to pick up a book now and then, the capacity to listen to multiple sides of an argument, and the ability to deliver a speech without mangling the English language used to be where most voters started their evaluation of a candidate. Now it’s where too many of us finish. A great many of us, if 2016 is any indication, apparently now even see being well read as an indication the candidate is out of touch.

So Oprah has demonstrated, via a speech delivered without the aid of a teleprompter, that she is far stronger than Donald Trump when it comes to the ability to clearly articulate values that most of us (hopefully) share. She has, in other words, met the new minimum qualifications we want to see in someone considering running for president. But that’s not enough. Neither is fame and fortune. Neither, for that matter, is being likable.

I am tired of being told that me wanting to go out for a beer with a candidate matters. If a candidate is an asshole, but is an asshole fighting to guarantee me a living wage, access to affordable healthcare and protect basic human rights, then I’m willing to spend my Saturday nights having a beer or two with people I would rather spend my weekends with while he/she runs the country.

Television is not reality. It is rarely even a decent reflection of reality. The persona offered to us on the screen is not often the one more intimate friends and colleagues see when the cameras are turned off. It is for this reason that I remain agnostic about an Oprah candidacy. I just have too little real evidence to make that leap. It’s nothing personal. The same goes for Tom Hanks, George Clooney, Jane Fonda, and just about anybody else with liberal leanings we might think of that would bring star power and media attention to a bid for the White House.

Television and movie stars are famous precisely because they have the capacity to make us think what we are watching is real, even if only for an hour or so. Did Oprah read all those books she promoted on her book club? Maybe. Or perhaps she had an assistant read them for her and brief her on the highlights. Is she really that empathic? Perhaps. Or maybe she is a bit grumpier behind the scenes. She leads a busy life and no doubt has her bad days. We all do. But the public never sees her bad days because it would tarnish her image. Oprah’s public persona is largely stress free. The authentic flashes of anger and missteps we commonly see in politicians are rarely seen on TV or the big screen. Television stars are typically idealized examples of who we want to be or, if they are playing the bad guy, exaggerated versions of villains we love to hate. As Kevin Spacey adequately demonstrates what you see isn’t necessarily what you get, even if he was playing Francis Underwood when he fell from grace.

So, Oprah, if you’re going to run I need to see more. I need the media to not just fawn over you, but to dig deeply into your life. You have no government experience, which means you have no voting record for me to analyze. I literally have only your word for it if you tell me you are pro-choice, or that you support raising taxes on the wealthy. You’ve never had to put your vote where your mouth is, let alone draft policies that will protect the environment or diminish our country’s growing gap between the rich and poor.

Finally, I’m just worried America’s celebrity worship has gone too far. Have we already forgotten that if it hadn’t been for the fame Trump won on The Apprentice he wouldn’t be leading the country right now? Television can make anyone appear smarter than they are. The difference between an intelligent television star and a dumb one is the amount of editing it takes to make them appear more or less equal. Fame and fortune have become proxies for ability in this country, in spite of the steadily mounting evidence to the contrary. Government is not a business and the presidency is neither a reality show or a talk show. It’s time we reject the premise that a difficult interview or negotiating business deals prepares someone for the kind of life and death decisions faced in the Situation Room. Oprah may be ready, but she still has a lot of convincing to do before she will earn my vote.

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US citizen residing in British Columbia, Canada. Degrees include anthropology and environmental studies. Activism, politics, science, nature.

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