Posted Nov. 10, 2008- It was December 2007 when she stood before a Des Moines, Iowa crowd of about 18,000 people, introducing her friend – a tall, slender, still largely unknown Chicago senator.
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Last week before a crowd many times larger at Chicago’s Grant Park, she cried tears of joy on the shoulder of a complete stranger as they both celebrated the senator’s rebirth as president-elect of the United States.
Oprah Winfrey had struck again.
In her first-ever major political endorsement, and a risky career move, the billionaire talk show diva and media mogul had supported a Black man’s historic bid to win the White House. Describing the mood of many in the 38 million major network viewership of election results showing Barack Obama as the 44th president, she called Nov. 4 “one of the most electrifying and emotional nights I’ve ever experienced.”
“Hope won,” the TV queen added.
Oprah had won, too, some observers and historians suggest. After all, you can’t even spell Winfrey without “win.”
“Because Oprah has such a reputation as a tastemaker, I think her early endorsement forced people to take Obama’s candidacy seriously,” says Dr. Mark Anthony Neal, author, pop culture critic and Duke University professor. “It made Obama more than a ‘Black’ candidate. Also, given Oprah’s championing of women’s issues, her decision not to support Hillary (Clinton) struck a chord for early undecideds.”
Winfrey’s stellar reputation as a brand-builder – boasting the long-running talk show, a film and TV production company, magazine and, soon, her own cable network – had never spilled over so conspicuously into politics. Early after the Clinton endorsement, reports had it that her show’s ratings suffered, some speculating that her predominantly White female fan base felt betrayed by her backing of Obama rather than Clinton. Show reps downplayed any suggestions of backlash, but Winfrey became noticeably lower-key in her public Obama admiration.
In the end, history appears to have vindicated Winfrey of any significant credibility loss among her core audience. Obama, as a Toronto Globe and Mail writer observes this week, could be seen as another example of the talk-show-host-goose’s golden eggs.
“There’s a synergy between Oprah’s role in the American culture and the emergence of Obama as the new leader for a new era,” writes the Globe and Mail’s John Doyle. “What might happen under Obama is the Oprah-ization of the United States.”
“Oprah-ization” as a metaphor for inspired, positive energy is what Obama has promised to bring the country, in the form of his own slogans, including “Change we need.”
Neal says that, even with the limitations of Winfrey’s influence in the Black community, her imprint on the election is evident.
“I think, early on, Oprah’s support wasn’t critical to Blacks because of their own issues with regards to her – she has rarely stepped out on a limb for Black issues,” Neal adds. “That said, Obama’s people understood that much of the Black electorate in the South was made up of women, and Oprah’s campaigning with the Obamas, particularly in South Carolina, helped give the campaign some momentum.”
If at Obama’s January inauguration, it’s only “momentum” that Winfrey is credited with providing, there may be good reason to wonder if he’d have ever been sworn in without it. Writes Doyle: “…the TV show she created, moulded and used to change the United States for the better – especially that room for dissent she created on her show – eventually elected Obama.”
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