Covering Richard Lugar’s presidential campaign in 1995-96, reporters in Iowa and New Hampshire would ask the Hoosier senator what it would take for him to evolve from darkhorse to victor. Lugar would respond with the word “fame.”
Or, as my memory serves me, Lugar would matter of factly state the obvious: “Well, you have to be famous.”
We’ve had famous presidents before, namely generals like George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, U.S. Grant, James Garfield and Dwight David Eisenhower. And we’ve had celebrity in President Ronald Reagan, though it took him three tries between 1968 and 1980 to turn fame into White House paydirt.
Donald Trump converted fame into a one-cycle genius quotient. He did it over a mere 18 months in 2015 and 2016, brilliantly turning himself into the blue collar billionaire. He didn’t like to shake hands with the middle class (he’s a germaphobe), but he was their whisperer up on the stage and out of sneeze range. He said what they were thinking, and turned their resentments into Electoral College votes. But 16 years before the genius Trump figured it all out, when he flirted with a 2000 presidential bid, he was asked about a potential running mate, and it wasn’t Mike Pence.
“Oprah, I love Oprah,” Trump told Larry King in pre-evil CNN in 1999. “Oprah would always be my first choice. I mean, she’s popular, she’s brilliant, she’s a wonderful woman.” Pence became Trump’s vice president because he looked that way out of central casting. Oprah never surfaced in 2016 because her fellow billionaire had already targeted women, Muslims, reporters and Mexicans with his thundering Thor lightning bolts.
Remembering Lugar’s call to fame, I posed the Oprah Winfrey 2020 foresight to Democratic Chairman John Zody in December, who quietly listened in bemusement. Entering what may be an age of celebrity presidents, Winfrey would begin with some of Trump’s strengths. She’s a billionaire businesswoman, remarkably famous, a TV and movie star and more popular. When Public Policy Polling tested Winfrey in March 2017, her fav/unfavs stood at 49/33%. She topped Trump in a head-to-head 47-40%. This was before all the Twitter storms. Rasmussen did the head-to-head on Jan. 8-9 and Winfrey led Trump 48-38% with 55% approval. Marist did one this week and had her leading Trump 50-39%, though 54% didn’t want to see her run, compared to 35% who did.
And then there are the contrasts. Where Trump doesn’t read (much), Winfrey would recommend a book on her TV show and it would top the NYTimes best seller list. There is the potential of her bringing on much of the Obama campaign apparatus, one which won a reelection bid in 2012 that economic telltales suggested he should have lost. In the age of spurned women, Winfrey is seen as an empowering figure.
In her lengthy Golden Globes speech Sunday night, she sounded like a candidate: “In my career, what I’ve always tried my best to do, whether on television or through film, is to say something about how men and women really behave. To say how we experience shame, how we love and how we rage, how we fail, how we retreat, persevere and how we overcome. I’ve interviewed and portrayed people who’ve withstood some of the ugliest things life can throw at you, but the one quality all of them seem to share is an ability to maintain hope for a brighter morning, even during our darkest nights.”
Oprah took her vivid brand and exploited a breach in time as wandering and confused Democrats pondered the vacuum and discovered a sprite.
The New Yorker’s Doreen St. Félix observed that on her 25-year show based in Chicago (and not the coasts), Oprah “served as an empath, challenger, and guardian of the varied anxieties of the middle-class cause. Along the way, she rewrote the romance of the American striver in the image of her impossible ascent. The mass of motivational literature that she has produced encourages us to remember her as a little black girl in Milwaukee, born amid a nation’s racial upheaval.”
So here in the age of Trumpian disruption and instability, with long-time Winfrey mate Stedman Graham saying she could be moved by the masses to run, we find ourselves conjuring the celebrity elixir to all things Donald.
How seriously should we take this? Former Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod told the New York Times that Winfrey has “a boundless capacity for empathy and a preternatural ability to communicate powerfully and authentically – as we saw at the Golden Globes. Will there be hunger in 2020 for someone with some experience in government, after Trump? There isn’t anybody who’s a greater antithesis to Donald Trump than Oprah Winfrey.” And remember, it was the Axe who recognized this potential in young Barack Hussein Obama when he was barely on the radar.
Former GOP speaker and Trump supporter Newt Gingrich told Politico, “She is very smart, she has a substantial following. I would take her very seriously as a candidate.” Republican strategist Mike Murphy, who aided and abetted celebrity California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, observed of her 14-minute Golden Globe speech, saying, “I recognize the beats, and they were done exquisitely.”
And Democratic strategist Brian Fallon adds, “People are treating Oprah as if she fits into some box. She doesn’t. It’s not a celebrity box. Oprah is a unique, standalone entity that uniquely could winnow the field.” New York Post columnist Jon Podhoretz, who along with HPI recognized the Oprah potential in late 2017, wrote on Tuesday, “There’s no one in her party who can deliver a speech the way Oprah delivered that speech on Sunday night. And there’s no one in America who knows how to talk, simply how to talk, the way she can. Good luck to the worthy and ambitious Democrats – the Hickenloopers and Bookers and Harrises and even the Bidens – who seek to try and match her word for word. And good luck to Trump, too.”
Hoosier Democrats were mostly mum. The establishment only partially swept into the column of the last Chicagoan who had the audacity to run, Barack Obama. The Bayhphiles adhered to the Clinton dynasty, even if recalcitrant Rudy Clay didn’t. Indiana Democrats clung to Hillary and watched socialist Bernie Sanders feed off the same resentments that Trump did as he won the 2016 primary with 53% of the vote, the same percentage that Trump did without Pence and the GOP hierarchy on board prior to the primary.
But that just goes to show ya that when you’ve got fame and fortune, Hoosiers, no matter what their ilk, can come around.
— Brian Howey is publisher of the Howey Political Report, a weekly briefing on Indiana politics. Contact him at 317-506-0883 or at howeypolitics.com.