Editorial: Oprah is great, but let’s raise the bar for the presidency

  • Oprah Winfrey poses in the press room with the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the 75th annual Golden Globe Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on Sunday, Jan. 7, in Beverly Hills, Calif. AP

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Over the past few days, three words seem to have captured the imagination of a Trump-weary nation: President Oprah Winfrey.

We like Oprah quite a lot. Her confidence, wisdom and strength are inspiring, and her ability to empathize with other human beings seems to be without limit. Her powerful speech at the Golden Globes on Sunday night was a reminder that she has few peers in the realm of public speaking, and she is also one of those rare conversationalists who doesn’t just wait for an opening to talk but listens as if what she is hearing is the secret to life itself.  

To face Oprah in a general election would in many ways be a nightmare for Donald Trump. She is his superior in branding and business, and is no slouch when it comes to Trump’s beloved television ratings game. His successful campaign strategy of endless bullying and alternative facts wouldn’t play well against her boundless optimism and demonstrated reverence for truth, nor would he emerge favorably in a comparison of life stories. Oprah is the embodiment of the American Dream whereas Trump is its grotesque distortion.  

But they do have something in common: Neither is qualified to be president of the United States.

In Tuesday’s New York Times, columnist David Brooks wrote about the “Decline of Anti-Trumpism.” His main point is this: “I’d like to think it’s possible to be fervently anti-Trump while also not reducing everything to a fairy tale.” And so Brooks offers three “inconvenient observations” about the current state of the Trump White House: first, a lot of people who have met with the president leave “pleasantly surprised;” second, not everyone who works for Trump thinks he’s deranged; third, the White House is getting more professional (and just imagine if Trump would stop tweeting!). One of the easiest writing assignments you can get these days is an anti-Trump essay, so we applaud Brooks for trying to cut through the noise with a more measured assessment. But in his effort to be the grown-up in an increasingly chaotic room, he ends up securing in place the presidential bar that was lowered just for Trump. It’s that same bar placement that has America wondering what Cabinet position President Winfrey will offer to Eckhart Tolle.

Over the years, we have had the opportunity to talk with many presidential candidates. They stop by the paper for an hour or so, and we try to ask them a good mix of questions about policy matters both foreign and domestic. Because New Hampshire is the first-in-the-nation primary state, we get to see a lot of them when they are still a little green, a little less polished in the way they answer. On domestic issues, candidates who have served as governor of their state tend to be the most impressive. They understand policy complexities from the perspective of governance rather than some think-tank white paper. More importantly, “bipartisanship” isn’t merely a buzzword for a governor but a one-word description of the way things get done. On foreign policy, candidates who have served in the U.S. Senate are uniquely formidable. They make a living reading intelligence documents, attending hearings and getting briefed by experts, so when you ask them about Syria, or North Korea, or China, they turn into professors.

Back in 2016, former Florida governor Jeb Bush was good enough to swing by the paper for one of these conversations. As we were getting started, we asked him about the campaign trail and he mentioned that he had come to realize that people didn’t want him to take a deep dive on policy, they wanted bullet items. He said this more as an observation than a lament, but it proved prescient. A wonky guy like Bush never stood a chance against Mr. 140 Characters, the undisputed king of the bullet item and a celebrity to boot.

As we said, we like Oprah quite a bit. She is the anti-Donald, and that’s awfully attractive to people who have watched Trump with a mixture of bewilderment and horror. But as voters, let’s try to raise the bar of the presidency so it’s just out of reach for celebrities with no experience in government. A presidential candidate should have to do more to get elected than make half of America feel better about being American.