In 1985 when I was a general assignment reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, I was dispatched to the Northwestern University campus to interview Leo Buscaglia, who was then a famous self-help guru known for hugging anyone within arm’s reach.
Buscaglia had been invited to be a guest on a Chicago-based talk show hosted by an up-and-coming personality — Oprah Winfrey.
After the show, Buscaglia tried to hug me, too. I suggested a simple handshake would work better. Later, Winfrey and I walked along the campus looking out onto Lake Michigan. She was funny, curious-minded and, at one point, took an interest in my black loafers, even running her fingers over the leather. Odd perhaps, but hardly an Access Hollywood moment.
Months later I became the paper’s television critic. There were times when I took Winfrey to task and others when I praised her work. By 1989 Winfrey already had proven her dramatic skills in The Color Purple, and I enthusiastically loved her performance in an ABC production, The Women of Brewster Place.
"I never thought I’d a get positive review from you," she mused in a handwritten note. But she had. And she deserved it.
I was even a guest on her show once. But alas, there were no keys to a new Jaguar under my seat.
All this history occurred before Oprah truly became OPRAH!!!, an international figure, multi-billionaire, entrepreneur, publisher, philanthropist and entertainment icon.
And you might add one more element to that list of accomplishments — President Donald Trump’s worst nightmare, aside from a grand jury subpoena.
Following her stem-winding remarks at last week’s Golden Globes, speculation erupted as to whether this was an acceptance speech for being honored with the Cecil B. DeMille Award or a not-too-subtle announcement she was running for the 2020 Democratic Party presidential nomination.
For his part, Trump dismissed the Winfrey boomlet, casually noting, "Yeah, I’ll beat Oprah. Oprah would be a lot of fun." Be careful what you delude yourself over.
It remains an open question if Winfrey will launch a presidential campaign. She is savvy enough to know a politician’s popularity begins to erode the moment they reveal their ambitions. Let us not forget former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton enjoyed good public approval ratings — until she formally announced her 2016 presidential bid.
And before you could say "opposition research," Clinton went from being a beloved public figure to the Ma Barker of Foggy Bottom.
Still, Winfrey looms as a formidable presidential opponent to Trump, with a moving personal history of escaping from grinding poverty to become a self-made billionaire presiding over a vast business empire that does not include phony universities, or stiffing contractors, or a litany of bankruptcies, or a lurid history of sexual indiscretions.
A Winfrey presidential campaign also presents an interesting challenge to political pollsters. It is true that the ascendency and election of Barack Obama did represent a postracial opportunity for the country.
Obama came out of nowhere to grab the national stage in 2004. Four years later he was president and still something of an unknown commodity to many Americans, some of whom irrationally feared the presence of a black man in the White House. Indeed the numbers of hate groups, not to mention gun sales, skyrocketed during the Obama years. It turned out the nation wasn’t so much postracial as it was most-paranoid.
Both Trump and Winfrey are products of the camera.
For 11 years, Trump hosted The Apprentice game show where each week contestants were subjected to ridicule and humiliation climaxing in someone getting fired. It was a phenomenally successful formula, enough to launch the real estate developer into the White House.
For three decades, Winfrey was invited daily into American homes across every racial and ethnic demographic category as a nonthreatening source of advice and comfort. The country empathized with the host’s struggles with her weight, relationship issues and other family challenges.
She was the national shoulder her audience could lean on.
Does all that make her a viable presidential contender? Maybe. Maybe not.
Are there other experienced potential Democratic candidates more familiar with Washington’s political culture? Sure.
But like Oprah Winfrey or not, there are few other potential candidates with her communication skills.
Can we talk? Winfrey debating Trump would be the television event of year.
The O versus The Donald. Imagine the ratings! It would be huuuuge.