Remembering Oprah

by Clifford D. May

After 25 years, The Oprah Winfrey Show is coming to an end tomorrow. Permit me to share a memory.

In the mid-1980s, I was spending a lot of my time in Ethiopia covering the Great Famine for the New York Times. In 1985, “We Are the World” became a hit song,  leading to what my colleagues came to call  “Celebrity Glut.”

I traveled by Jeep with Senator Ted Kennedy; by helicopter with Harry Belafonte; I played tennis with Michael Jackson’s brother Marlon; and I took Cliff Robertson to dinner at the best Italian restaurant in Addis Ababa.

I remember a friend telling me that Oprah Winfrey was coming to Ethiopia and that I should travel with her a bit. I asked: “Who is Oprah Winfrey?” My friend replied: “Where have you been, guy?” I said: “In Africa — for a rather long time.” “Well,” he said, “Oprah Winfrey is a TV talk show host out of Chicago — and she’s beating Phil Donahue in 35 markets!” (That may not have been the exact number he cited but it was something like that. And I was astounded. Phil Donahue had long been the king of daytime television.)

So I got on the bus with Oprah, who seemed nothing like a TV star — not at all glamorous. But she was nice, not full of herself, genuinely concerned about the terrible tragedy and atrocity taking place in Ethiopia, and very curious about everything that was going on. I could not say that about all the visiting celebrities (though I have nothing but praise for Cliff Robertson as well — ask me about him sometime).

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