In the careless shorthand of Washington correspondents, the Clinton administration’s Ohio fiasco was supposed to be an “Oprah-style” town meeting. If only. Had Oprah, rather than Madeleine Albright, gone out to endorse bombing Iraq, Saddam would now be in the same enfeebled state as those Texas cattle barons: Within days, polls would have shown 98 percent support for saturation bombing; the self-help guide How to Make Your Own Smart Bomb would have reached the top of the best-seller lists; the new CD by Oprah’s musical guest, Kenny G.Plays His Weapon of Mass Destruction, would have gone platinum; luxuriantly mustachioed men would be lining up to have their Saddamite growths pruned back to something closer to the trim upper lip of Oprah’s beau, Stedman Graham. Conversely, if Madeleine, rather than Oprah, had gone on TV and announced that, because of mad-cow disease, she would never eat another burger, the world would have shrugged and gone back to its Double Whopper with cheese, and there would have been no trial in Amarillo.
It’s important to cling to that distinction when commentators start bandying about the word Oprahfication. In this fragmented media age, not many TV performers are privileged to become nouns and adjectives, admitted to the same select group as Thatcherism and Dickensian. If anything, Oprah Winfrey’s achievement is more impressive than Margaret Thatcher’s or Charles Dickens’s. Oprahfication doesn’t refer to anything as piffling as a partisan creed or a stylistic voice; as denounced by the Wall Street Journal, it means “public confession as a form of therapy,” but even that doesn’t quite cover it: Rather, Oprahfication has become the routine designation for nothing less than the wholesale makeover of the nation, and then the world. Recently, it has been casually deployed to disparage not only President Clinton’s “national conversation on race” but also the new, breast-beating post-Di, post–Killer Nanny, flaccid-upper-lipped British public. Oprahfication, in that sense, is a term that has slipped its original moorings: Oprah herself had nothing very illuminating to say about the Princess of Wales, and her own conversations on race tend to be more robust, bringing together the author of the insightful tome Why Black People Tend to Shout (I forget the reason) with a studioful of prime exhibits.
But, as Ohio reminded us, there’s a world of difference between the Winfrey wannabes and the genuine article. When Oprah decides personally to Oprahfy something or another, the results are spectacular: That show on mad-cow disease sent the price of beef into freefall and cost America’s cattlemen millions. In January, when the good burghers of Amarillo decided to defend the good name of their good burgers in court, Oprah took her show, her producers, and her celebrity guests to the hitherto Lone Star State to defend the show’s “quality, integrity, and fairness.” This was the edition in which she said mad-cow disease “could make AIDS look like the common cold.”
Actually, it’s Oprah who makes AIDS look like the common cold. Within a couple of days of her showing up in Amarillo, the crowds were lining up for tickets, fans were waving pro-Oprah placards outside the courthouse, grateful citizens were telling reporters from Entertainment Tonight that they had lived in Texas all their lives and never thought they’d see the day when a bunch of megastars would honor their li’l ol’ town with a visit, and suddenly those litigious cattlemen were looking like a beleaguered minority in their own backyard. Most of us non-daytime-TV-viewing types assumed that traditional rules would apply: that the locals would turn on the media big-shot who had so off-handedly slighted them from afar and stick by an important industry that not only provided direct employment but also sustained many other businesses in town.
But what do we know? In an Oprahfied America, no politics is local and most of life is televisual. For the citizens of Amarillo, their best pal from TV is more real than their real friends and neighbors on Main Street: It was no contest.