New Republic Cover Story: Clinton, Dubya Owe Their Presidencies to...Oprah

June 3rd, 2006 3:21 PM

In his cover story on Oprah Winfrey in the June 12 New Republic, Lee Siegel asserts that Oprah, whose TV show is syndicated by CBS-owned King World, is somewhat of a kingmaker in the political world:

In 1986, human nature in America started to change. That year, "The Oprah Winfrey Show," based in Chicago, became nationally syndicated, and the country entered the beginning stages of a quiet cultural revolution. It took awhile for the transformation to take hold, but, four years later, the effects were unmistakable. Do you really think George H.W. Bush, who presided over the spectacularly successful Gulf war, lost to Bill Clinton in 1992 because of a sagging economy? It was Oprah, stupid. It was Oprah behind Clinton in 1992 and also in 1996; and it was Oprah behind George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, electoral shenanigans notwithstanding. 

It's safe to say that, with her parade of afflicted guests, Oprah helped along the perception of Clinton's childhood wounds as evidence of authentic character. With her emphasis on imperfect self-presentation as proof of genuine intention--she has appeared on the air in her bathrobe, without makeup--she also helped create an atmosphere that turned Al Gore, and then John Kerry, into fabricated con men who were too handsome (Kerry had his lanky Jimmy Stewart allure), articulate, and privileged to be trusted or true. Bush, on the other hand, was so inarticulate, awkward, and funny-looking that, when you thought of his own super-privileged background, you felt that at least he had something going for him. And all that unconcealed imperfection made him real--or at least electable.

Most of Siegel's piece is, as you'd probably expect, non-political. The following, the last few lines of which are likely to offend some NewsBusters readers, is more typical of his analysis:

The secret of Oprah's success on television is precisely that her show has been, until the recent "reality" craze, the antidote to the images of ideal happiness and physique that appear on television. From her first talk-show gig in Baltimore hosting "People are Talking," in which an overweight, awkward Oprah brought equally ordinary people in front of the cameras to speak with her, she has always thrust life in the face of imperial television. Think of it like this: The media is Caesar. Having mastered and then revolutionized its idiom, Oprah is Christ. Like changing water into wine, she has managed--through her elevation of hidden, obscure, or neglected experience into spectacle--to make the television set watch you.

For more discussion of Oprah in religious terms, see this mid-May NB post by Tim Graham.