It's official: Oprah Winfrey refuses to throw her own bonnet into the ring as a presidential candidate, but she's more than happy to push her senator, Illinois Democrat Barack Obama, for the job.
That's what she told Larry King on his CNN program last Monday. But, if Winfrey thinks she can defuse the draft-Oprah movement, such as it is, she's probably mistaken. There are forces larger than even Ms. O's charismatic popularity at work here.
By week's end, for example, Internet sites were offering "Oprah Obama '08" trucker hats, tote bags and other paraphernalia. If nothing else, the T-shirt and bumper sticker industries will keep hope for the two big O's alive.
So, alas, will the insatiable 24-hour appetites of cable TV, talk radio and other media. "The media only care about Obama because he's black," say a few one-liner e-mails that I have received from unimpressed readers. Well, as the young folks say, duh-uh!
Or, as older folks say, you have a keen grasp of the obvious.
Yes, friends and neighbors, Obama is black or, more precisely, the famously half-black son of a Kenyan father and a Kansas mom. But our curiosity should only begin with the realities of race, not end there.
The truly intriguing question is, why do so many Americans get all warm and excited over the prospect of a viable black presidential candidate?
We've seen serious draft movements rise up in both parties and among moderates over the past decade for Obama, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. We saw the neo-liberal Washington Monthly catch the temperature of the times by urging Democrats in early 2005 to consider Bill Cosby: "A successful, much-loved black man touting education and family-valuesWhat's not to love?"
Now Oprah? Patrick Crowe, a retired Kansas City math teacher and former car wash owner, has been promoting a draft-Oprah movement for years. Hardly anyone noticed until Winfrey's lawyers did him the favor of threatening to sue him if he didn't stop using their client's name on his Web site. Up stepped Lady O, who admonished her lawyers to leave that dear man alone. She was flattered by Crowe's attention, she said, as if no one had been paying attention to her before.
But why the frenzy to draft Oprah and the rest?
Celebrity star power matters. Just ask California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. But with all of the political celebs who want to run for office, why all the fascination with the above-listed stars who don't?
Another reason: Symbols matter. I was surprised by several angry e-mails after I referred to Powell and Rice as important "symbols" of America's racial progress. "They're not 'symbols,'" my readers said defensively, as if I had said "tokens," which would mean they were not qualified for their jobs. Quite the contrary, it is their impressive qualifications for their jobs that makes them important symbols of progress, regardless of how you feel about their politics.
Obama's 2004 Democratic National Convention speech lit a fire under Democrats by giving them their own Colin Powell, a new face who offered a refreshing mix not only of races and cultures, but also of liberal ideas with traditional values.
Of course, the irony is that the quest to elect a symbol of how America has moved beyond race means that Obama, Rice, Winfrey, Cosby, etc., must be judged at least in part on the color of their skin, not the content of their character, as Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed. This effectively reduces them into something less than the individuals they strive to be. Such are the ways of modern politics, which pit one media-created image against another. But they also help explain why Obama, among others, has good reason to avoid jumping into the presidential ring too soon, if at all.
Which leads to my third explanation for the excitement surrounding Obama, Powell, Winfrey, etc.: Widespread disappointment with the current lineup of likely 2008 presidential candidates.
Democrats fear their current frontrunner, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, won't cross over well to crucial moderates. Arizona Sen. John McCain, the Republican frontrunner, faces his biggest hurdle with conservatives in his own party's base.
Behind this disappointment I detect a national yearning for a truly transformational leader, the sort of leader who not only manages daily problem-solving but actually transforms the times in which we live, as Ronald Reagan did from the right or John F. Kennedy from the left. Instead, we see a lineup of "transactional leaders," fixated on short-term remedies and surrounded by spin doctors to prevent them from digging deeper holes for themselves.
The speech that launched Obama to stardom contained an important element of transformational leadership. The first President Bush called it "the vision thing." It matters a lot more than skin color.