Editor’s Note: Sally Kohn is a CNN political commentator and the author of the forthcoming book “The Opposite of Hate” (April 10, 2018). Follow her on Twitter: @sallykohn. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
In the hours after Oprah Winfrey’s inspiring speech at the Golden Globe Awards, CNN’s Brian Stelter reported that friends close to Oprah have said she is “actively thinking” about running for president in 2020. And progressives, like me, could not be happier.
To be clear, progressives have spent much of the last two years lamenting the idea of a billionaire TV star sitting in the Oval Office – and for good reason. Donald Trump has repeatedly demonstrated himself to be a narcissist with no interest in learning about the nuances of policy, let alone government.
Elitism, ignorance and selfishness are always dangerous variables in political leadership. Trump, perhaps unique among any leader in modern political history, possesses all three. Even his strongest allies can hopefully admit his presidency has been sloppy and shortsighted. That, in fact, is putting it gently.
Oprah deserves her own category for most things in life – and this is no different. There are TV stars and movie producers and charitable leaders and public intellectuals – and then there’s Oprah. Her singular ability to connect with people of all walks of life and build empires to help them, especially those most marginalized, is unparalleled.
To put a finer point on it: Donald Trump built buildings. Oprah has built our shared values and humanity through the scaffolding of her voice and the architecture of her moral leadership. Donald Trump made money. Oprah made a difference.
And in Oprah we see the quality that we should always look for in our political leaders – someone interested in using her time and talents to help others. Whatever your party, whatever your beliefs, the people we elect should work for our interests and not their own. And Oprah has already demonstrated as much. While she has certainly made quite a bit of money, she has done so through lifting up others.
Perhaps the better analogue to Oprah running is not Trump but Ronald Reagan, a Hollywood figure with genuine experience and expertise in political leadership. Like him or not – and I certainly fall into the latter category – before Reagan ran for governor of California, he served as president of the Screen Actors Guild Union, working on behalf of others to improve policies and practices for everyone in his industry. He was interested in helping and serving others and parlayed his leadership for his fellow actors into leadership for his fellow Americans. Though I don’t support many of the things Reagan did in office, he was qualified to serve both in principle and in practice.
So is Oprah. Her civic and business experience is prodigious, from her production company that has produced justice-oriented films and television shows, to her philanthropic work through which she’s given hundreds of millions of dollars to support educational opportunities in the United States, Africa and around the globe. And in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, for instance, Oprah personally donated over $10 million to build homes across Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and Alabama for those displaced by the storms. Unlike many of Trump’s donations, which were publicized but never made, Oprah’s donations were made but often not publicized.
In many ways, Oprah’s story is the aspirational story of America. Born in rural Mississippi to a poor, unmarried teenage mother, Oprah spent her childhood shuttling between family members with so little money that she often wore potato sacks for clothes. And yet despite continued hardships, Oprah managed to find a toe-hold in a black radio station and from there, due to her talent and persistence, climbed to the top of the media universe – redefining and reshaping it forever.
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Oprah’s story reminds us all what’s possible – or should be possible – for everyone in our great country. And at the same time, Oprah’s story reminds us of the implausibility of such success, the hurdles that so many must overcome and which cause many more to stumble, of the injustices and inequities that also plague our nation.
As she made clear in her Golden Globes speech, Oprah knows the unique power she represents. She recalled watching Sidney Poitier receive the Cecil B. DeMille Award years earlier and the impact it had on her, saying, “It is not lost on me that at this moment, there are some little girls watching as I become the first black woman to be given this same award.” Oprah has the power to shine while understanding how her spotlight can help others – and using that power in a strategic, service-oriented way. That’s called leadership.
Of course, part of the appeal of an Oprah candidacy is the prospect of our increasingly reality TV-like political atmosphere. But beyond that, there’s just something magical about Oprah herself, a somewhat singular figure in a somewhat singular moment in a somewhat singular nation. I don’t really believe in the smug nationalism of American exceptionalism, but I believe in Oprah exceptionalism. And I think Oprah would make an exceptional president.