Oprah and Obama

October 03, 2006|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- It's official: Oprah Winfrey refuses to throw her bonnet into the ring as a presidential candidate, but she's more than happy to push Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois for the job. That's what she told Larry King on his CNN program last week. But if Ms. Winfrey thinks she can defuse the draft-Oprah movement, such as it is, she's probably mistaken. There are forces larger than even Ms. O's popularity at work here.

By week's end, for example, Internet sites were offering "Oprah Obama '08!" trucker hats, tote bags and other paraphernalia. If nothing else, the T-shirt and bumper sticker industries will keep hope alive for the two big O's. So, alas, will the insatiable 24-hour appetites of cable TV, talk radio and other media.

"The media only care about Obama because he's black," say a few e-mails that I have received from unimpressed readers.

Well, as the young folks say, duh! Or, as older folks say, you have a keen grasp of the obvious.

Yes, friends and neighbors, Mr. Obama is black. But our curiosity should only begin with the realities of race, not end there.

The truly intriguing question is: Why do so many Americans get all warm and excited over the prospect of a viable black presidential candidate?

We've seen serious draft movements rise up in both parties over the last decade: for Mr. Obama, Colin L. Powell and Condoleezza Rice. We saw the neoliberal Washington Monthly catch the temperature of the times by urging Democrats in early 2005 to consider Bill Cosby.

Now Oprah? Patrick Crowe, a retired Kansas City math teacher and former carwash owner, has been promoting a draft-Oprah movement for years. Hardly anyone noticed until Ms. Winfrey's lawyers did him the favor of threatening to sue him if he didn't stop using her name on his site. Up steps Lady O, who admonishes her lawyers to leave that dear man alone.

But why the frenzy to draft Oprah and the rest?

Celebrity star power matters. Just ask California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. But with all of the political stars who want to run for office, why all the fascination with the above-listed stars who say they aren't interested in running for office?

Another reason: Symbols matter. I was surprised by several angry e-mails after I referred to Mr. Powell and Ms. Rice as important "symbols" of America's racial progress. "They're not `symbols,'" the e-mailers said defensively, as if I had said "tokens," which would mean they were not qualified for their jobs. Quite the contrary, it is their impressive qualifications that make them important symbols of progress.

Of course, the irony is that the quest to elect a symbol of how America has moved beyond race means that Mr. Obama, Ms. Rice, Ms. Winfrey, Mr. Cosby, etc., must be judged at least in part on the color of their skin, not the content of their character, as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed. This effectively reduces them into something less than the individuals they strive to be.

Which leads to my third explanation for the excitement surrounding Mr. Obama, Mr. Powell, Ms. Winfrey and the others: widespread disappointment with the current lineup of likely 2008 presidential candidates.

Democrats fear their current front-runner, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, won't appeal to crucial moderates. And Arizona Sen. John McCain, the Republican front-runner, faces conservatives as the biggest hurdle in his party.

Behind this disappointment I detect a national yearning for the sort of leader who not only manages daily problem-solving but also transforms the times in which we live, as Ronald Reagan did from the right and John F. Kennedy from the left. Instead, we see a lineup of "transactional leaders," fixated on short-term remedies and surrounded by spin doctors.

The 2004 Democratic National Convention speech that launched Mr. Obama to stardom contained an important element of transformational leadership. The first President Bush called it "the vision thing." It matters a lot more than skin color.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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