At least she didn’t give away expensive gifts to every attendee when the icon of the airways spread her charm in behalf of Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. But the gospel according to Oprah Winfrey — as shopworn as it was in this case — still seemed to resonate with the thousands of Iowans who heard it.
“What we need,” she said after a reportedly nervous beginning, “is a new way of doing business in Washington.” It is an approach that is as old and cliched as any in the history of campaigning. When one is an outsider or relative newcomer to the political scene, running against the capital city is almost de rigueur. Jimmy Carter did the same thing very successfully, if regrettably.
Well, pardon me, folks. But if all those good Democrats in Iowa who go to their caucuses soon decide to vote for the freshman lawmaker from Illinois on the basis of an appeal by Winfrey, they are far less perceptive than I think and probably should not be as important as they are in the presidential-selection process. This is just a tad more significant than deciding to buy a book on the strength of her recommendation or purchasing a consumer product for which she fronts. The depth of her own experience in these weighty matters just about matches her candidate’s, even granting that she is a bit more than just another crowd-building celebrity.
“Experience in the hallways of government isn’t as important to me as experience on the pathway of life,” she told her enthralled audience in a clear admission that Obama’s political resume is as thin as she is after one of her celebrated diets. He is a perfect example of what Lyndon Johnson called “Senate-itis,” a malady the former president described as leading one to believe that after five minutes in the upper chamber of Congress that one is now ready to run the entire country.
Not only has Obama been in the Senate a very short time, he has not been a regular there for months, spending most of his time talking about issues he seldom has helped decide. As for experience on the pathways of life, I’m not certain that years spent in an expensive prep school and the Ivy League quite qualify him for that claim, either. He did have a few years in the Illinois legislature, if that counts for very much.
Is he a bright, charismatic young man with a great future? Yes, of course he is, and if he earns his bones in the crucible of national politics, he can look to another chance. He has not done so yet. So why should we take it on the word of a television entertainer or Obama himself that he can do the job? Perhaps with the true experience necessary, as we have noted, he would not have to run against Washington, the straw man that is always the easiest to blow over until the time comes to face up to the realization that, if you are elected, Washington becomes you.
Having said that, is it time to elect a black to the presidency? Indeed it is. But it probably is equally as important to break the male hold on the office, to say once and for all that not only is one’s race not a valid reason for rejection but neither is one’s gender. Nor for that matter should race or gender be the sole reason for voting for a person.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., excites mixed feelings. Why? Because she has been exposed to the perils and pitfalls of the national political landscape for a great many years. She has survived some pretty rough experiences in both her personal and public life. She has put herself on the line. She has made enemies as well as allies. One doesn’t have to take it on good faith she can do the job. One may not like what she proposes, but that is a different issue.
In the sole interest of breaking down the racial and gender barriers to the White House, we could hope that a highly credentialed woman of color would emerge. Undoubtedly, there are those who believe Winfrey would herself be such a person. Unfortunately, interviewing people on a talk show from which she has made herself a billionaire, while certainly admirable, hardly qualifies her for that job or, for that matter, for telling us whom she thinks is.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)