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.
In little more than a decade, Oprah has spread AIDS-like into every nook and cranny of American life. Well, not exactly AIDS-like; she’s more the opposite of HIV — whatever she infects grows as plump and bloated as she at her most corpulent. Even the sleepy backwater of American letters: people who hadn’t bought a book in ten, 20 years started buying them simply on her say-so. We have Oprah to thank for The Bridges of Madison County, an indifferent seller until she picked it up — “Read Bridges in an afternoon,” she said, “sitting in my living room crying.” She failed to deliver her own autobiography, but sent Knopf instead a collection of low-fat recipes by her personal chef: It became the fastest-selling book in American history. Recently, the publishing industry discovered that, when Oprah recommends a book, not only does that title hit the best-seller charts but so do unrelated books with similar names: Somewhere, no doubt, there’s a retired Iowa dentist getting surprisingly large royalty checks for his memoirs (The Bridgework of Madison County). If Oprah were to endorse a self-help book called How to Stop Buying Books Just because Your Favorite TV Host Recommends Them, You Pathetic, Craven Loser, it would be an instant best-seller.
But the numbers alone fail to convey the sheer reach of Oprah. Today, no truly epochal moment in the history of the Republic occurs unless it is validated by her presence. When Ellen said, “Yep! I’m gay,” Oprah was by her side, guesting on the sitcom as (what else?) the star’s therapist. She is, of course, therapist to an entire nation. If only it weren’t so hard for the rest of us to get an appointment. Asked to explain the causes of the 1992 riots, one angry black looter from South Central said: “We had to do something to get Oprah to Los Angeles.” Well, it makes as much sense as any other reason.
It has been a rapid rise. In 1985, she was hosting a local TV show in Chicago. But Quincy Jones happened to catch it and called her in to audition for The Color Purple, directed by Steven Spielberg. She had never acted before, but she wound up with an Oscar nomination and, more important, some lessons in moguldom from Jones and Spielberg. Like them, she formed her own company — Harpo Productions — which took over her show, negotiated a canny syndication deal, and began pushing her nationwide. Harpo Productions has nothing to do with the silent Marx brother; it is “Oprah” spelled backward. Poor old Harpo — the original Harpo, that is. It’s hard to believe now that anyone could make a career in America out of not talking: in that sense, Oprah is Harpo back to front. For there is no greater sin than silence in Oprah’s brave, new cathartic world, where the road from Denial to Rehab is spoken of as if they were stops on a vaudeville circuit (“I’m booked at the Pantheon in Denial, South Dakota, for two weeks”). And, in a way, it is the only vaudeville circuit left. Once upon a time, scholars confidently proclaimed that America’s great contributions to 20th-century culture were its vernacular art forms — jazz, the Western, musical comedy. But at century’s end the only vernacular art form left is the vernacular itself — or, more accurately, the weird hybrid of slang and jargon that passes for talk on TV. Here’s Oprah on Arnold Schwarzenegger: “Arnold is a mentor to a lot of men, but the thing that they’re mentoring is the macho, the muscles. But what makes Arnold Arnold is the balance.” Most of us guys would be perfectly content to have our macho mentored by other men, but not Arnie. “He knows and practices sensitivity.”
Oprah is America’s “wealthiest female entertainer,” but she doesn’t do anything that would have traditionally qualified as “entertaining” — sing or dance or tell jokes or juggle midgets while wearing a revolving bow tie. All she does is talk. She was not the first. But her predecessor, Phil Donahue, never achieved anything like her degree of market penetration. He did not become a noun: No one spoke of the Philification of America. Indeed, it is hard to recall now that this white-haired white male with no visible dysfunctionalisms was ever king of the airwaves. Phil did his best: When ‘‘Transvestites Who Date Their Wives’ Fathers” (I quote from memory) was the topic of the day, he gamely dressed up in a frock and stiletto heels. But dressing up is all it was. By contrast, Oprah herself seems to be her own one-woman group booking, a vast conglomeration of all the nation’s favorite victim groups: She’s a woman, she’s black, she’s fat or thin — or a dieting victim, ballooning up to 237 pounds in 1992, which is positively svelte by the standards of most of her viewers but makes her without doubt the largest female TV star of all time (traditionally, her ratings have been higher when she’s heavier); she may or may not be lesbian, depending on whether you believe the supermarket tabloids or the terminally affianced Stedman Graham, Miss Adelaide to Oprah’s Nathan Detroit; she was born out of wedlock in 1954, abandoned by her father, raped by a cousin when she was nine, sexually abused by an uncle and other miscellaneous blood relatives and several close family friends over the next five years, became a teenage mom and lost her baby. . . . The standard rap against daytime talk shows — that they’re voyeuristic — surely can’t apply to her: a stifled yawn and a “been there, done that” seem more likely.
It’s scarcely believable now, but there was a time, 15 years ago, when this sort of thing had to be pried out of celebrities; they didn’t volunteer it. Possibly, if you searched hard enough, you could find one or two showbiz personalities who haven’t claimed to have been abused as a child (Milton Berle hasn’t, to the best of my knowledge), but otherwise, where Oprah led, lesser lights have been only too happy to follow.
What can we learn from this new confessional? Mostly that, unlike the old confessional, it uses the appearance of personal honesty as a form of evasion. By 1992, when Oprah went to Los Angeles for a post-riot update, her guests — the cream of the neighborhood’s pillagers and looters — had mastered the buzzwords of the format. “I looted,” said one, stabbing the air emphatically, “because I felt it was a cause that had to be met.” Amid all the hapless Korean storekeepers there was a black businessman whose shop had also been razed. The chief looter had a ready answer: “All businesses were burnt, of course, in a situation that was perpetuated therein, you know, in a situation, we cannot, uh, say, okay, we are not going to have a black business burnt.”
In olden days, your average looter preferred to give the media a wide berth and melt back into the anonymity of the crowd, but now the prospect of adding a second string to his brick as TV’s Mister Riot more than outweighs any fear that appearing on a coast-to-coast talk show might prejudice any forthcoming trial. Producers are, after all, easily impressed: “Hey, get this guy! Not only can he pillage, he can also say ‘perpetuated therein.’“ But, in the years since, the Oprah form of public discourse has been perpetuated throughout: O.J. uses it, and the Duchess of York, and President Clinton. “Personal honesty” is the best way to dodge personal responsibility.
Perhaps no one sums up the deficiencies of the form better than the woman who started it. Oprah has been speaking for a living since she got her first gig in radio when she was still in high school; she has been speaking in public since the age of three, when she gave a talk at the Baptist church in Kosciusko, Mississippi, called “Jesus Rose on Easter Day.” The other kids nicknamed her “Miss Jesus” and “The Preacher.” But what exactly is she preaching? Like most showbiz personalities, she prefers the comforting vagaries of New Age spiritualism to the stricter confines of organized religion. “I went through a spiritual period in the early Eighties,” she said, and, after The Color Purple, began buying up the film rights to various feel-good books. She was especially frustrated at being outbid on The Education of Little Tree, the reminiscences of a Cherokee boy. “It was a spiritual little book,” she said. “I read it sitting on the porch of my farm in Indiana. Thought the trees were talking to me, too.” Unfortunately, the author subsequently turned out to be not a Cherokee but a Klansman, Forrest Carter, the fellow who wrote George Wallace’s “segregation forever” speech.
You’d have to have a heart of stone not to weep with laughter at that: the Oprahfier Oprahfied. Does it really matter whether the guy’s a Cherokee or a Klansman as long as he can fake the generic maudlin mush beloved of Oprah’s viewers? After all, Oprah herself maintains her own cunning divide between her public persona and her private self. We know lots of details of her life — like Melinda and Sandy, the names of her two beloved pet cockroaches from her dirt-poor childhood — but somehow the whole remains elusive. Whether she’s gay or straight or just too busy, it’s amazing that the person who introduced sexual confession to American television should have succeeded in keeping her own sexual identity under wraps. Is she or isn’t she living with Stedman? Will she or won’t she marry him? No one knows. But it’s significant that both she and Rosie O’Donnell, her fellow daytime queen and rumored lesbian, have, in fact, no sexual image whatsoever. In what is supposed to be an age of titillation, American TV viewers are most comfortable with a vague, generalized cuddliness. But then, ever since her childhood, parceled out evenly among three regions of the country, everything about Oprah seems to be vague, generalized, emblematic.
So where next? The other week, a Boston Globe columnist mentioned her as a possible presidential candidate, though on what grounds she didn’t say. What would President Winfrey’s platform be? What does she believe in? Where does she stand on taxes or Social Security? Who knows? Who cares? Oprah’s faux “book club” is more real to more Americans than the real book clubs their next-door neighbors belong to; her so-called “town meetings” more real than any real town’s real town meeting. In the slide to a virtual culture of bland reflexive emotional impulses, Oprah is way ahead of the game. So why not a Winfrey Presidency? With Donahue lookalike Bill Clinton as her warm-up act, her political accession would have a certain symmetry. And at least that Ohio debacle would have been properly organized.