Quick Takes: Oprah’s Speech Was About Us, Not Her

How we’re missing the heart of her message.

I wrote about my reaction to Oprah Winfrey’s speech before I watched the unfolding obsession over whether she will/should run for president in 2020. I have to admit that the more I heard about that, the more frustrated I became. Here’s what I tweeted about that:

As I watched one liberal after another outline why Winfrey shouldn’t run, this was my reaction:

Then I finally read what Dahlia Lithwick wrote and all I could say was, “amen to that!”

I loved Oprah’s Golden Globes speech on Sunday. It was mesmerizing, pitch perfect, and gave voice to many lifetimes of frustration and vindication with eloquence and a full authority she has earned. But I found the strange Facebook response of “Oprah 2020” weirdly discordant and disorienting. Oprah’s speech—in my hearing—wasn’t about why she needs to run for office. It was about why the rest of us need to do so, immediately.

The dominant theme I heard was about giving voice to invisible people. It was the arc of the entire speech…

What I heard in her speech wasn’t a bid to save us all, but rather a powerful charge to the young girls watching at home to tell their own stories, to fight for their own values, and to battle injustices with the certainty that they will be seen and heard…

…what Winfrey and Obama talk about is the limits of top-down power. It is one of the great sins of this celebrity age that we continue to misread this message as a call to turn anyone who tries to deliver it into our savior. When someone tells you “I alone can fix it,” you should run screaming for the emergency exits. When someone tells you to get off your ass and fix it yourself, you should think first about running for office yourself.

Having watched these kinds of outbreaks come and go, I’ll guarantee you that all of the focus on whether or not Oprah will run for president will disappear in another day or two. What we could learn about this incident is that the media remains obsessed with the horse race of presidential politics and doesn’t seem capable of covering a story outside of that frame. By doing so, they create and affirm a narrative that what this country needs is a savior, which smacks of authoritarianism and is the opposite of democracy.

Even more disturbing is when liberals follow the media down that rabbit hole and assume that the big story is about who is going to run for president in 2020. I agree with Lithwick, Oprah’s message last night was “a powerful charge to the young girls watching at home to tell their stories, to fight for their own values, and to battle injustices with the certainty that they will be seen and heard.” If they take her up on that, it will create a wave that will dwarf the story about who runs for president in the next cycle.

Finally, before Oprah, there was another guy who gave powerful speeches that had nothing to do with running for political office, and yet managed to lead a movement that changed this country. The New Yorker remembers him this way today.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.