This is a guest post by Herb Silverman. He’s the founder and President-Emeritus of the Secular Coalition for America.
President Franklin Roosevelt supposedly said about the ruthless, anti-communist dictator of Nicaragua Anastasio Somoza García: “Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch,” a statement subsequently attributed to a variety of presidential administrations. After the recent tax bill passed, I expect many Republicans could comfortably replace “Somoza” with “Trump.”
When progressives talk about Oprah Winfrey for president, I hear in my mind: “Oprah may be an unqualified celebrity billionaire, but she’s our unqualified celebrity billionaire.”
And, unfortunately, this can almost sound reasonable because American politics today might be described by one of President Trump’s favorite words: Sad! I prefer that presidential candidates have a demonstrated ability to govern, knowledge of the issues, a clear program, core values, and an ability to compromise when necessary. Winfrey (and Trump) may have charisma, but that should not replace substance. Even so, in this celebrity-obsessed culture, some might be willing to support another unqualified celebrity in order to defeat unqualified celebrity Trump.
I must admit that I would find entertaining an Oprah Winfrey run for president against Donald Trump, though I hope neither will be a candidate in 2020. But if I had to choose between the two, Oprah would get my vote. I’d favor someone who shows compassion and wants to bring us together, rather than someone who takes pleasure in creating hostility and dividing us; someone who is curious, listens, and is willing to learn from others, rather than someone who is incurious and thinks he knows it all; someone who reads books, rather than someone who gets bored reading a one-page summary.
President Theodore Roosevelt referred to his office as a “bully pulpit,” by which he meant a terrific platform from which to advocate an agenda. The word “bully” was then a synonym for “superb.” President Trump has taken the phrase “bully pulpit” to a much different level. A President Winfrey would restore “bully” to its original meaning.
Though an individual with no government experience might turn out to be a decent president, I have significant problems with Oprah. When I wrote about her seven years ago for the On Faith section at the Washington Post, I focused on her religious (and anti-scientific) views. She believes in a variety of paths to God, anathema to many Christians because they believe there is only one. (As an atheist, I think there are no paths to any gods.) To Oprah’s credit, unlike with many politicians and televangelists, she doesn’t try to impose her religious beliefs on others or support legislation to do so, but she has long promoted pseudoscience and New Age spirituality. And in a conversation with long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad, Oprah had trouble accepting that Nyad could be an atheist and still find awe and wonder in the universe.
So, I give Oprah a failing grade for a reality-based worldview. She has favored an assortment of questionable cures on television. However well-meaning and sincere, she seems more convinced by testimonials from celebrity friends than by scientific evidence. This is especially irresponsible because Oprah has such a large base of supporters who follow her views “religiously.” Misleading information endorsed by Oprah includes Jenny McCarthy’s anti-vaccine crusade and author Rhonda Byrne’s book, The Secret, about the “law of attraction” (not the scientific one from electrostatics). Byrne claims that just thinking good thoughts can cure emotional, financial, and physical problems. Encouraging people to think positively is worthwhile, but Oprah should tell her followers to be skeptical about taking the advice of untrained professionals — including herself. Critical thinking should be encouraged for everyone.
Observing Donald Trump reminds me of a wonderful movie, Being There, a story about a dim-witted gardener named Chance, played by Peter Sellers. Chance spends his entire life gardening for a wealthy man in Washington and watching TV. When his benefactor dies, Chance has to leave his comfortable surroundings and enter the outside world. By chance, Chance meets an advisor to the U.S. President who mistakes Chance’s incoherent comments about gardening and TV for profound insights on the economy. Others take notice and decide Chance would be a worthwhile replacement when the president dies. The only one who realizes that Chance is dim-witted is his doctor, who keeps it secret.
Before President Trump, I thought Being There was merely clever and funny. Now I’m beginning to think it might have been a little prophetic. I only hope that another Peter Sellers character does not turn out to be prophetic — Dr. Strangelove. Better Oprah in 2020.
(Image via Shutterstock)