The story of O + O

Sep 12, 2007 at 12:00 am

Two of the most prominent and influential African-Americans in media and politics (and two of the weirder names), Sen. Barack Obama and TV host Oprah Winfrey, joined forces and rocked their worlds last week. They seriously intend to rock the vote this primary season.

The two Chicagoans haven't created a ticket for the presidency and vice presidency as some might fantasize — legally the president and vice president must be from different states. But Winfrey, a television and media megastar, threw her support behind Obama last week in hosting a $3 million-plus fundraiser at her California estate known as the Promised Land.

In contrast to the YouTube Obama Girl who cavorted scantily clad on a video and sang a love-struck paean to the presidential candidate — an effort totally unconnected to Obama's campaign — Winfrey is the real thing.

"I'm feeling Barack," she told Ellen DeGeneres on the Ellen show in February.

"Oprah, you're my girl," Obama said when he appeared on her program in fall 2006.

Obama's not pulling a Rudy Giuliani on his wife Michelle, although Michelle Obama made news last week by revealing to Glamour magazine that her husband was "snorey" and "stinky" in bed. Most couples don't find that grounds for divorce. (Although my wife will instruct me to shower before coming to bed.) No, the O + O love affair is more cerebral, more practical and more political.

You may need to keep notes here: On Tuesday, Bill Clinton was on Oprah to talk about his new book, Giving, although any appearance of his has undertones of Hillary Clinton boosterism; the same afternoon Hillary Clinton was on Ellen. Tuesday night Bill Clinton was on The Late Show with David Letterman, where the former first lady appeared the week before. Wednesday, Republican Fred Thompson overshadowed a Fox News Republican candidate debate by going on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno to announce his candidacy. The same night Bill Clinton was on Larry King Live.

But Winfrey's star-studded fundraiser for Obama was the news of the week for many reasons. First of all, Winfrey, whose show airs to 8.4 million viewers each weekday, has never before really endorsed a political candidate. Second, Obama has skillfully maneuvered his campaign. He doesn't present himself as the black candidate and he doesn't alienate African-American voters. But with Oprah, two black juggernauts came together.

"Although she has been active in civil rights issues, she has not endorsed a political candidate in the same way before," says Ann Chih Lin, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan. "Her support is significant partly because she signals not only to blacks but also to whites that Obama is a serious candidate. Her demographic of white women find her very appealing. They identify with her."

Still, Obama's campaign has stressed fault lines between African-American institutions and political activists. Winfrey's fundraiser has caused some fence-sitters to choose sides when it comes time to ante up with money, although the secrecy and security at the event helped keep most of the 1,500 guests who paid the $2,300 maximum allowable contribution anonymous until campaign finance reports are filed.

Most of the guests parked at a facility about 10 miles away from Winfrey's 42-acre Montecito, Calif., estate and were shuttled in on buses with tinted windows. Associated Press and Chicago Sun-Times reports listed Sidney Poitier, Forest Whitaker, Chris Rock, Cindy Crawford, Jimmy Connors, Linda Evans, Dennis Haysbert, Whoopi Goldberg, Lou Gossett Jr., Cicely Tyson, Ellen Pompeo, Tyler Perry, Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds, Rodney and Holly Robinson Peete, Judge Greg Mathis, Tom Joyner, Ernie Banks, Bill Russell and Dave Winfield in attendance. Stevie Wonder performed.

Those were the few known guests. No media, cameras or recording equiptment were allowed inside. Apparently any images or audio are exclusively in the hands of Winfrey's Harpo Productions Inc. Winfrey is reportedly discussing an ongoing role in the Obama campaign and any exclusive images might come in handy.

A recent Gallup poll shows Winfrey to be the second most influential woman in the United States. As impressive as that is, the poll found Sen. Clinton the most influential woman. And polls have consistenly shown Clinton to have more support among African-Americans than Obama. Not to mention being about 20 points ahead of him overall.

Winfrey's old friend Quincy Jones is co-hosting a Clinton fundraiser at Magic Johnson's house on Friday. No doubt an impressive number of black celebrities and politicos will attend that bash too. Clinton enjoys endorsements from Maya Angelou, former New York Mayor David Dinkins and Black Entertainment Television founder Robert Johnson.

"I think it's' absolutely true that a lot of the black establishment supports Hillary Clinton," says Lin. "Traditional civil rights activists see this less a choice about Obama than a choice about who they think has the best opportunity to win. They have a long history with the Clintons in terms of legislation policy choices that they believe that the Clintons would support. ... It's primarily a political calculation. Civil rights leaders and Obama have been very careful not to speak badly about each other to leave the door open to future alliances. If Obama goes through primary season and doesn't get the nomination, he will continue to be a major political figure."

That's the way politics works. Deals and tradeoffs made long ago come into play. Old relationships and a track record trump promises from some wet-behind-the-ears newcomer. That's the way it's always been and it has little to do with race or racial loyalty. If it were only about race, Obama would be burnt toast already. Let's face it, African-Americans are only about 12 percent of the population and have a terrible track record when it comes to voting. Not to mention the Republican efforts to suppress the vote in areas with high black populations.

This brings us to where O + O make a difference. In the end, deals will be made, alliances will be brokered. If African-Americans can be brought to the polls in large numbers we will have a seat at the table when the deals get made no matter who wins the Democratic nomination.

Look at the Republican frontrunners: Rudy Giuliani is an old white guy who looks like he got his dental work done in a back-alley abortion clinic; Fred Thompson is an old white guy who's trying to revive the ghost of Ronald Reagan; Mitt Romney is an almost-old white guy ashamed to use his real first name — Willard.

"Don't tell me you don't vote because it don't make no difference who's president," says Michael Eric Dyson, academic, author, radio host and frequent pundit on CNN television, who recently visited the Campus Martius Borders touring in support of his new book. "It makes a hell of a difference who's up in that office. ... I'm for any Democrat who can get up in there and act like a Democrat."

As ludicrous as it sounds, we need Democrats to act like Democrats.

The field of Democrats looks a lot more like America than the Republicans. And if Obama and Oprah and even Clinton can get us a seat at the table, well, I'm down with that. You know what I mean.

Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former editor of Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]