Politics & Policy

When Oprah Was On

Reading her impact

Today marks the final episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show. Has it been a net gain or loss for American culture? National Review Online asked some discerning culture watchers.

 

Charlotte Allen

Back in 2002, I wrote an article for The Women’s Quarterly in which I deemed Oprah Winfrey “A-O-Kay.” Sure, I found her “O-dious” liberal politics a trial: always Ruth Bader Ginsburg on her show and never Sandra Day O’Connor (although, to be fair, Oprah did invite Condoleezza Rice). And why did a woman raised in the ardent Christianity of her beloved grandmother feel compelled to host every peddler of New Age woo to wander across her TV stage?

#ad#Still, I found many reasons to like Oprah Winfrey. I liked the way she had, through brains and guts, transcended a ghastly childhood that featured a promiscuous mother and a pregnancy at age 14 whose culmination was the death of her newborn son. I liked that her father, Vernon Winfrey, stepped into this farrago with tough love and curfews to turn his daughter into an A-student and avid reader. I liked Oprah’s warm, real personality underneath the carapace of stagey glitz — and her interviewees responded similarly. I liked the good taste and high standards that she and her magazine, O, fostered. Above all, I liked the classy way she dealt with that overhyped brat-author, Jonathan Franzen, gently disinviting him from her show after he pronounced it “schmaltzy.”

But as nine years passed since my article, the distressing aspects of Oprah Winfrey became more pronounced, to the point that they began to crowd out the aspects I admired. The politics — couldn’t she have admired Barack Obama’s drive to become America’s first black president without becoming his shill? The New Age stuff — what was this with “The Secret”? Even Oprah’s once-lovely clothes took a turn toward the over-the-top. Her show began to slip ever so slightly but ever so inexorably downward in the ratings. I wish Oprah well, but I think that that the shrewdest decision that she has made in her shrewdly designed career was to quit when she could at least maintain the illusion that she was ahead.

Charlotte Allen is writer in Washington, D.C.

 

Lisa Schiffren

The influence of Oprah Winfrey’s TV show on American culture this quarter century has been vast and transformative, for good (some) and ill (more).

In 1986, the nation’s daytime sob-sister of note was Phil Donohue, whose often emotional, personal,  “new, sensitive male” shtick was easily dismissed in Ronald Reagan’s America, where manly virtues and style had not been entirely deconstructed and metro-sexualized. You could still envision a good man who was strong but silent. Crying was a career ender, and over-sharing was not done by serious people.

Enter Oprah. Her personal confessions, tears, and overflowing emotions (delivered articulately enough to suggest preparation), changed the style of casual discourse — and, ultimately, political speech too.

Of course, the feminization of American culture had been underway for a century, episodically, before she showed up. Historian Ann Douglas had ascribed it (partly) to an alliance between victimized women and preachers, attempting to sissify a rugged pioneer culture (e.g. Prohibition or the peace movement).

On her show, Oprah got to be the hurt woman and the preacher. She talked about depression, weight, and sexual abuse, in a manner familiar to women from the intense, intimate confidences of deep female friendship. Those agonies and confessions won the love and allegiance of millions of American women, who were a little lost at whatever point in their lives they were home, watching. It worked because, in the same show, she’d go from victim to healer, offering a female version of the deeply American boot-strapper archetype.

The triumph of her style has helped de-stigmatize real victimization — which is a clear good. Alas, it has made life that much harder for conservatives and others who prefer the rational to the emotional, who don’t think that understanding necessarily equals forgiveness, and who think that there are constraints to material reality, even if there aren’t with love and forgiveness.

— Lisa Schiffren is a writer in New York.

 

Glenn T. Stanton

I can’t believe what I am about to do. As a white, evangelical, politically and theologically conservative male, I am going to effusively praise Oprah Winfrey.

Yes, she is a cohabiting, syncretizing, spiritual freelancer who thought Barack Obama was “The One.”. But I do think her show has been a wholesale benefit to American culture.

First, she was never Jerry Springer. She never used her guests. Unlike Donahue, she didn’t scoff at faith. She was civil, the only interviewer not on Fox to give President Bush a respectful interview on his book tour. She got people to believe in their abilities and possibilities without being a paper-thin prosperity-gospel preacher. As a father of four daughters, I like that she is a confident leader who is secure in her womanhood. She got lots of people reading decent books. She cared about her brand, making sure it was pro-community and mostly family-friendly.

And these are all good things for our culture, even if we strongly disagree on bigger issues.

Glenn T. Stanton is the director for Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family and author of Secure Daughters, Confident Sons.

 

Suzanne Venker

Most Americans know Oprah Winfrey is liberal — and those who ever questioned it got a dose of reality in the last presidential election. What many people don’t know is that Oprah is not content to just be liberal — she wants to make America liberal, too. That’s what her 25-year run was all about.

There are two left-wing mantras Oprah lives by, and she repeats them often. One is that when people know better, they do better — which implies that education is all people need to make good decisions. The second is that all people are inherently good. In a recent interview about OWN, her new network, Oprah reiterated her philosophy; “I’m concerned about the bigger overall picture: my belief that people are basically good.”

In addition to swearing by these mantras, Oprah kneels at the altar of moral relativism — where people determine for themselves what is morally right based on how they feel about it. To Oprah, the only commandment that matters is the one she and the media elite made up: Thou Shalt Not Judge.

This worldview — that education is the answer to ethical behavior, that all people are intrinsically good, that morality is subjective — is what Oprah’s programs are built upon. Her goal isn’t to expose actual truth — but truth as she sees it. As Kitty Kelley writes in her biography, something Oprah used to say was, “I am the instrument of God. I am his messenger. My show is my ministry.”

So as the Hollywood elite say a tearful goodbye to their personal God, Americans should keep Oprah’s influence in perspective. Behind every Oprah Winfrey Show was a goal: to promote a leftist point of view. It was planned. It was orchestrated. And, unfortunately, it was successful. 

Suzanne Venker is co-author, with Phyllis Schafly, of The Flipside of Feminism

 

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Danielle Bean 

Everyone loves Oprah.

We’ve loved her through the skinny years, the fat years, the marathon training, the Mad Cow disease hamburger controversy, and the Tom Cruise couch performance. Oprah made us laugh, made us cry, introduced us to Spanx, and gave away cars.

#ad#What’s not to love?

The problem is that when Americans fall in love, we sometimes fall too hard. As anyone who has ever fallen too hard in love can tell you, smitten lovers run the risk of losing all sense of discernment and perspective.

Those of us who loved Oprah’s show for its food reviews, parenting tips, and fashion advice might not have noticed that her advice did not stop at the material. Especially in her show’s later years, Oprah wanted to feed our souls.

When we weren’t looking, Oprah transformed her image into something close to a spiritual icon. Her book recommendations included not only chick-lit fiction titles, but New Age spiritual resources. Her show’s tagline became “Live Your Best Life Now,” a directive that included a spirituality based on the works of New Age notables Marriane Williamson, Betty Eadie, and Sophy Burnham, among others.

In every human heart there is a void — a longing for emotional happiness, personal fulfillment, and spiritual wholeness. Our empty, aching hearts are made for communion with our Creator. Jesus Christ, who alone is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, can make us whole.

Oprah is a funny, smart, charismatic, and real American woman who has found commercial success by tapping into a human need for “soul food.” When popular culture feeds us New Age mumbo-jumbo, feel-good speak, and words of affirmation, we might be temporarily satiated, but in the end we come away empty again.

Oprah fills our hearts and minds with fleeting feelings. Only Christ can feed our souls.

— Danielle Bean is editor of Faith & Family magazine and Faith & Family Live. Find her on Twitter or Facebook.

 

Myrna Blyth

Was Oprah good or bad for American culture? Well, over the past 25 years, there have been a lot of different Oprahs to consider. First there was the sensational tabloid Oprah who was in the TV trash-talk “shock and awe” business. Then there was the dieting Oprah, who starved and gained, making her own weight-loss struggle a relatable national obsession. There has also always been the acquisitive girlie “shop and never drop” Oprah, who seemed to be continually demonstrating that unbridled retail therapy was the real happy ending of her success story.

But maybe most concerning was the self-help Oprah, the role she has played for the past decade, who has heard every confession and embraced all victims, whether or not they were truly victims at all. She certainly has contributed to making many women in this country, with all their opportunities, feel that their lives are really oh-so hard, and they are victims too.

Along the way, she has promoted a score of self-help phonies and also offered her audience a slew of semi-crackpot medical notions. And is she politically biased? Yes, oh, yes. Did she help elect Obama? Yes, oh, yes. But when George W. Bush kissed her, it helped him, too.

A great positive was her love of reading, which has made millions pick up books. Of course, most of the books she liked were unremitting tales of woe about women as victims. Still there are book clubs all over reading and discussing because of Oprah.

Most important of all, she changed ideas about race in this country. Twenty five years ago when she first came on the scene it would have been impossible to imagine that the richest, most admired, and most influential woman in America would be a portly, middle-aged African-American. So much of America will be tuning in today to the last Oprah show to watch her take the bow that, by-and-large, she deserves.

— Myrna Blyth is editor-in-chief of ThirdAge.com.

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Teri Christoph

Oprah’s 25-year run has unfortunately been a net negative on American culture. When her show first began in 1986, she presented herself as a God-fearing woman who was concerned about the challenges facing everyday Americans, be they trivial or more consequential. As her popularity and personal wealth increased, she seemed to veer away from the practical and toward what she called the “spiritual.” This is where she lost me and many others. Yes, we share her belief that we are powerful and can change the world, but we recognize that there is more at play than our own willingness to seek change. Oprah became irrelevant to most of us when her religious faith seemed to be supplanted by New Age mysticism.

I do feel a certain amount of empathy for Oprah, however, as her world necessarily became insular as her fame grew. Perhaps this burden of hers will be eased as she steps away from daily television, and she’ll be afforded the opportunity to reconnect with the things that we used to love about Oprah. It’s time for the Church of Oprah to close forever.

— Teri Christoph is co-founder of Smart Girl Politics.

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Rod Dreher

Despite the truly admirable, even inspiring, rags-to-riches story Oprah Winfrey can tell, and despite having done some important and moving shows in her time, I count her influence as a net negative on American culture. When people speak pejoratively of the “Oprahfication” of an idea or phenomenon, they mean that many in the public have come to see the thing primarily through emotional, therapeutic eyes. Take the show she broadcast on Islam three weeks after 9/11. I wrote about it on NRO at the time, criticizing Oprah harshly for her propagandistic whitewashing of unpleasant realities in contemporary Islam. She encouraged viewers not to think about what Islam stood for, but rather to feel positive towards Islam, and therefore to deny anything that countered this preferred narrative. At her worst, this is what Oprah is about: the triumph of the therapeutic, a phrase coined in the 1960s by sociologist Philip Rieff, to describe the culture then coming into being — a culture that seeks a sense of peace and well-being as its primary goal. By no means did this mindset start with Oprah, but she became its avatar without peer.

— Rod Dreher is the author of Crunchy Cons.

 

Julie Gunlock

I’m an occasional Oprah Winfrey Show watcher (there, I said it!). While I detest the term “middle-of-the-road,” that’s where I am on the question of Oprah’s impact on American culture.

Among the positives: She has encouraged reading and healthy eating, and she’s no secularist; God is a topic she’s not afraid to discuss. Unlike other talk-show hosts, she doesn’t exploit her guests for ratings. And thankfully, Oprah hasn’t added to the increasing level of cynicism that has entered the national dialogue.

However, her negatives are real doozies. There’s no denying that Oprah has created a nation of self-regarding, self-pitying group-thinkers who rely on her and her army of specially selected experts for everything.

Need medical advice? Ask Oprah’s in-house physician, Doctor Oz. Need financial advice? Ask Oprah’s in-house financial advisor Suzy Orman. Decorating advice? There’s cute-as-a-button Nate Burkus. Nutrition and exercise? Oprah’s personal trainer Bob Greene’s there to help. Counseling? Don’t forget Dr. Phil. There is not much disagreement between Oprah and these experts — their opinions stand as the unchallenged truth.

What these group-thinkers will do after Oprah’s show goes off the air is beyond me. Perhaps they’ll start thinking for themselves . . . until the next Oprah comes along.

— Julie Gunlock, a former congressional staffer, is now a stay-at-home mom.

 

Tim Graham

There are two noticeable camps of opinion on Oprah Winfrey’s show: the everyday fans (I have one in my house) and the more distant critics. To fans, Winfrey was a regular force for good, reinforcing human decency, compassion, and respect for “diversity.” In recent years, Oprah too eagerly promoted the lives of “sex workers” and supportively interviewed porn-superstar Jenna Jameson.

To critics, Winfrey’s show strongly pushed society in a libertine direction. Facts could suffer. Few remember now how Winfrey frightened so many in 1987 by claiming very wrongly that “research” showed that “one in five heterosexuals could be dead from AIDS” by 1990. Oprah celebrated Ellen DeGeneres coming out and championed Thomas Beatie as a “pregnant man” on her show, having a “normal” and “average” pregnancy.

Oprah’s new cable network, OWN, is also strongly pushing the libertine line. OWN has already aired a documentary exploring the sexual transformation of “Chaz” Bono; and a film from Lisa Ling touting a camp where children “can feel accepted as both gay and Christian . . . The Naming Project is the first Bible camp of its kind, perhaps the first place in history where worship sessions come after a diva contest.”

No one beats Oprah Winfrey in a diva contest.

— Tim Graham is director of media analysis at the Media Research Center.

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Mollie Ziegler Hemingway

If you support the widespread practice of pseudo-confessional but ultimately self-justifying defensiveness, the unleashing of hayseed morons such as Dr. Phil and trust-fund prevaricators such as James Frey, the spreading the New Age teachings of “The Secret” and normalization of a generic spirituality that views all religions as equally truthful, and encouraging grab-bag materialism over time-honored virtue, there is no question that Oprah Winfrey has had a net positive on American culture.

 — Mollie Ziegler Hemingway writes for GetReligion.org.

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Jennifer Lahl

While I can count on one hand the number of times I tuned in to watch Oprah, and those few times were prompted by urgent e-mails — “Tune into Oprah today, she’s doing a show on sperm donation!” — one would need to have lived in a cave for the past three decades to not know who Oprah is, what Oprah does (she gave new meaning to the acronym S.W.A.G.), and how much weight she could throw around no matter if she was up or down on her bathroom scale. Clear enough is the plain and simple fact: People want leaders and are willing to follow. Oprah has left a carbon footprint that would cause Al Gore to lose sleep the rest of his days. I imagine the first one brave enough to attempt to fill that gap will be heavily scrutinized, but make no mistake, someone will replace Oprah and become the next kingmaker.

 — Jennifer Lahl is president of the Center for Bioethics and Culture Network.

 

Michael Leaser

Oprah’s run has to be seen as a net positive, if only because her success is one of the premier examples of someone who has lived the American dream, rising from literally wearing bags for dresses to becoming arguably the most influential woman in the world.

Her popularization of the talk show as national group-therapy session, including the inferior copycats her show spawned, helped America get in touch with its feelings, for better and for worse, and spawned an Oprahfied president when Bill Clinton famously felt our pain on his road to the White House. Thanks to Oprah, we are also more likely to see, and expect to see, public officials treat the airwaves as a confessional.

I believe that, by and large, she did a great service for American literacy with her book club. Some of her book selections were not the greatest pieces of literature, but I will never forget the first time I felt the power of her club when I walked into a Borders and saw John Steinbeck’s classic novel East of Eden on their bestseller list. Taking a book most people have only read because they were forced to do so in high school and turning it into a national bestseller: now that’s power!

— Michael Leaser is an associate of The Clapham Group. He is also the editor of FilmGraceand a correspondent for World.

 

Penny Nance

Oprah Winfrey certainly can be a role model for many women who pursued their dreams relentlessly and made it to the top of their field, but the way she has affected the culture of this country as a whole has been mixed. Oprah has done some important work. She was one of the first in media to sound the alarm on the issue of child predators on the Internet. I applaud her valiant efforts to toughen laws against pedophiles in general. In addition, she often told parents hard truths regarding promiscuity among teens, and looked for opportunities to help kids all over the world.

However, I question her judgment on the issues of homosexual “marriage,” economics, and religion. She praised Ellen DeGeneres and Porta de Rossi for their “marriage” and said that Michael Moore’s work “resonated” with her. Although she claims to be a Christian, she endorsed all kinds of New Age worship and claimed that “God is a feeling experience and not a believing experience.” According to the Culture and Media Institute, who put together the “Worst of Oprah” list, the host not only campaigned for then-senator Barack Obama, famously proclaiming him “The One,” but actively attacked Sarah Palin and her daughter Bristol. Most women have enjoyed an afternoon with Oprah.

Good luck Oprah Winfrey!

— Penny Nance is chief executive officer of Concerned Women for America.

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Marcia Z. Nelson

Assessing Oprah’s influence on the culture is like reading the Bible: There are some bits you really, really like, and some others that are unpalatable, but there’s no ignoring the book. I really, really like her emphasis on education, literacy, and women’s issues. Putting 64,000 people through school (a stat from the show) is a lot more than any single family can boast. Making Leo Tolstoy a bestseller in 21st-century America is no mean feat. Women around the world have benefited from Oprah’s interest. My book has been translated into Indonesian and Korean; Oprah has an audience far beyond America. What’s not to like? To name a few: excess, too many celebrities, a two-part farewell show, too many favorite things. My own favorite Oprah was pre-mogul. Still, anybody who shows up for work for 25 years deserves a watch. Oprah gets a Hermes for each wrist. She does deserve that for reminding the culture that listening is an affordable gift that returns something to the giver, a message she has preached and practiced.

Marcia Z. Nelson is the author of The Gospel According to Oprah.

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Ben Shapiro

With Oprah’s departure from network television, the entertainment industry loses one of its icons. Fortunately, it also loses one of its most biased commentators, the Dan Rather of emotion-driven daytime talk. Oprah’s politics became crystal clear during the 2008 election, when she leveraged her tremendous popularity to support Barack Obama and drive him into office, then refused to have Sarah Palin on, because she didn’t want to “use my show as a platform for any of the candidates.” But her political leftism extends further back than that. Beginning in 2003, she used her bully pulpit to target President Bush and the war in Iraq, going so far as to show anti-Bush clips from Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, then sweetly informing her audience, “It resonated with a lot of people, me included.” Oprah has also used her vast audience as a club against social conservatism, pushing the gay-rights movement since the 1980s (most famously appearing in cameo in the coming-out episode of Ellen). Among her other “accomplishments,” Oprah has also nearly bankrupted the U.S. beef industry; attacked a store as racist for not letting her in near closing time; presented the world with liar James Frey; legitimized Jenny McCarthy’s nutty linkage between vaccination and autism; the list goes on and on. The biggest problem with Oprah is her cult-like leadership of her audience — whatever she says, goes. Plastic surgeon Dr. V. Leroy Young explained the phenomenon well in 2006: “If she told viewers that arsenic would make them beautiful, we’d be getting hundreds of calls from people asking us for arsenic.” At her best, Oprah was entertaining and informative, bringing millions of people closer to literature through her book club or awakening them to medical possibilities. At her worst, Oprah was a Lonesome Rhodes type, rejecting reason in favor of emotion and leading her followers by the nose to her political and social conclusions. Overall, good riddance.

— Ben Shapiro is the author of the upcoming Primetime Propaganda: The True Hollywood Story of How the Left Took Over Your TV.    

 

Pia Solenni

While some intellectual elites, both conservative and liberal, might sneer at the ordinariness of The Oprah Winfrey Show, I think her show has done a great deal to counter many of the negative influences in our culture.

Unlike many other shows, Oprah and her guests engaged in reasonable, if pointed, dialogue. Her show has also been a vehicle for addressing serious issues, including child abuse, domestic violence, sex crimes, and various addictions. Unfortunately, these realities are part of many people’s lives; they need resources, including the language to talk about a problem that might otherwise remain unknown.

Her promotion of New Age tenets, unfortunately, has caused confusion for some people. She could have done a much better job focusing on her other winning topics.

Do I wish Oprah had tackled some of the more challenging issues like abortion? Sure. In fact, I think she could have been a uniquely strong voice to at least start a conversation about the topic. But I think it’s important to focus on the overall positive impact of her show. Her very demeanor communicated to women a much higher standard of self respect that we find in so many other venues of public life.

Frankly, I’m not overly optimistic about the programming that will replace her show.

Pia de Solenni is a moral theologian. She writes and travels for speaking engagements from Seattle, Washington.

 

Christine Rosen

It would be easy to criticize the woman who secured the celebrity of fabulist James Frey and offered her imprimatur to the gnomish New Agey musings of Eckhart Tolle. After all of these years of The Oprah Winfrey Show, however, I find I’m still a fan. In a democracy as cacophonous as ours, we need cultural arbiters. True, the zeal with which Oprah exhorted her viewers to achieve “your best life” by eating right, exercising more, and journaling their way to emotional health usually made me want to take a nap. But in one arena — reading — Oprah’s force was benevolent and unparalleled. Oprah started her Book Club with her feet planted firmly in the middlebrow; her reading list was heavy on therapeutic fiction and memoir. But since 2003, when she revived the Book Club after a hiatus, she has chosen classic literature, “great books that have stood the test of time,” as she calls them, and that many of her viewers likely haven’t cracked open since high-school English class. Although I remain agnostic on the usefulness of Dr. Phil for our cultural health, let no unkind words be spoken about the woman who persuaded Americans to read Faulkner, Dickens, Tolstoy, and Steinbeck.

— Christine Rosen is senior editor of The New Atlantis.

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Elizabeth Scalia

I confess, I have only ever watched perhaps three Oprah episodes in their entirety, and two of them were about the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, in Ann Arbor, Mich., a religious group that Oprah gave enormous exposure to, and a helpful dollop of goodwill. Perhaps the paradox of Oprah is that she had the power, reach, and influence to do a lot of good or to mislead people into silliness. I think for the most part, she landed in the middle — probably because people have only so much appetite for being led. In the end, even if they’ve been brought to water, a few sips always seems to settle their internal meters either toward or away from whatever shiny idea first caught their attention. To her credit, Oprah seemed to know that and to be able to adjust accordingly, which is why — in the end — she was probably a net positive to America. If she carried on a bit too much about “favorite things,” she was also genuinely interested (and generous in promoting) the very anti-materialistic lives of others. Of course, helping elect President Obama may ultimately tip the scales away from the plus side . . . 

— Elizabeth Scalia is the managing editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos, and a columnist at First Things.

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Cal Thomas

Oprah Winfrey has been to this generation what Timothy Leary was to the Sixtiescrowd, whose children are among her most devoted followers. And “followers,” or maybe “disciples,” is the right word. She is a messianic figure whose image is everywhere, most notably (when not on TV) on the cover of her O magazine. Some women apparently do not make a decision without thinking WWOD? (What would Oprah do?)

She forgives without requiring repentance and, by doing so, she is the she-god for our time. We need only worship at the shrine of Oprah. She requires nothing more of us. We may live as we wish (as she does with her “boyfriend,” to whom she is not married). She judges not, lest she be judged. Oprah makes her viewers feel good, which is the objective of our age.

#ad#Oprah Winfrey did more to impose President Obama on America than perhaps any other person, save Obama himself. She was especially influential with women (of course). She did some very good shows on abuse, encouraging women to speak up about it and for men to be held accountable. Celebrity guests wanted to do her show more than any other. Authors knew Oprah was their ticket to a bestseller if she spoke well of their book. 

Oprah was very public about her challenges with her weight. She went up and down, as most of us do, and ultimately became comfortable with the body in which she found herself.

One of my favorite Oprah shows was the one in which she gave away cars (donated by GM) to women who said they were in desperate need of one and who had been performing good works of some sort or another. In a perfect example of the entitlement mentality of our age, some of the women complained they had to pay taxes on the car. Apparently they thought Oprah should have picked up the tax tab.

There have been other media icons who defined decades, even generations. Milton Berle defined the Fifties and Johnny Carson spanned three decades — an incredible feat in TV. Oprah’s viewers will decide whether she can continue her miraculous career on her own cable network, OWN. People move on. New celebrities are created. Can she last? Nobody lasts. But in the history of television, Oprah Winfrey made history and a lot of money. Some of that money was used to do very good things to improve the lives of quite a few people. No one can deny her the approval and adulation that came from those acts of kindness and generosity. “Fame, if you win it, comes and goes in a minute” goes the song, which then says “Where’s the real stuff in life to cling to.” On more than one occasion, Oprah Winfrey pointed women to “real stuff” and urged them to cling to it. Amidst the celebrity and the fluff, that is her legacy.

— Cal Thomas is a syndicated and USA Today columnist

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