The Golden Globes often heighten speculation about the Oscars: Who’s up, who’s down, and do those wacky members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association really have much in common with Academy voters anyway? But on Sunday, Oprah Winfrey’s stirring acceptance of the Cecil B. DeMille Award for her lifetime achievements set off a very different kind of horse-race chatter.
Immediately, the hottest game in political and pop cultural media became the question of whether Winfrey might be considering a 2020 run for president. Did her 2017 statement that “I will never run for public office. That’s a pretty definitive thing” still hold? Can her friends talk her into entering the arena? And if they can, does the era of the celebrity political candidate suggest an irrevocable decline in American public life?
It’s too early to panic about an impending idiocracy or to start dreaming about who might share a ticket with Winfrey. And while name recognition shouldn’t be the only qualification for the presidency, it’s also worth remembering that our disaster of a first celebrity presidency doesn’t mean all famous people would be horrendous politicians.
Celebrity is a broad category. Dwayne Johnson, who has repeatedly floated the idea of entering politics, has a well-burnished brand*, but his popularity has yet to be tested. Johnson hasn’t adopted particularly concrete political stances, and he has yet to match his personal experience with any discernible management skills. But there are also plenty of very famous people who have parlayed success in one field into extensive businesses that they manage directly or who have used their wealth for philanthropy that has given them definite positions on signature issues.
Winfrey actually is what Donald Trump has often claimed to be. She’s a self-made billionaire, with the latest Forbes estimate of her fortune clocking in at $2.8 billion. And unlike Trump, who built on the foundation of a family business and stands slightly ahead of Winfrey on the Forbes list, she made all that money herself, founding her Harpo Productions company in 1986. Trump may have hoped that the outcome of the 2016 presidential election would be a Trump network; Winfrey founded her television channel, the Oprah Winfrey Network, in 2011 and sold the majority ownership to Discovery in 2017. And while Trump repeatedly reneged on his charitable promises, Winfrey has donated and raised millions of dollars for various causes. (Liberals excited about her candidacy might take a moment to examine her support for charter schools.)
The problem with Trump isn’t that rich people can’t be impressive; or that running a large, complicated business bears no relationship to running the executive branch; or that sustained philanthropic involvement is a bad way to learn about the issues. It’s that the actual facts of Trump’s story never attained the heights of his puffery. A celebrity candidate who actually possessed the qualities that Trump only claims would be in a much better position to ascend to the presidency than Trump himself was.
And while Trump has interpreted his wealth as proof that he understands everything about how to be successful, celebrity is not automatically proof of incuriosity or vanity. There are plenty of people who leverage their fame in order to further their educations, or to get on the ground in situations that otherwise might be foreign to them not because they believe they know best but because they’re eager to know more. Al Franken may have been a comedian before he was a senator, but he also knew a lot about the way the right-wing media worked, and he put effort into learning about sexual violence. His downfall came about not because he was famous but because he lacked self-restraint.
Ultimately, we should use the same questions to test celebrity candidates that we use to examine anyone who seeks higher office. Why do they want to run? Are they engaged on the topics they’ll have to make important decisions about? Do they seek out the advice of serious, skilled people? Do they have the relevant experience to manage the people they’ll oversee and the personal qualities they’ll need to comport themselves well once they’re in office? It was a huge mistake for Trump voters to allow his celebrity to obscure the disturbing answers to these questions. It would also be wrong to let the glitz of fame distract us from heartening answers about another potential public servant.
*He also has a tendency to mention the column I linked to here in connection with those aspirations. If we get President The Rock at some point, I will be available to accept either your credit or your blame.