Message to Oprah and the Democrats: One terrific speech doesn't make anyone presidential material

After William Jennings Bryan spoke in 1896, delegates reacted "like demented things, divested themselves of their coats and flung them high in the air”. He was nominated (three times) but never became president

David Usborne
New York
Tuesday 09 January 2018 18:19
Oprah's Golden Globe speech: 'For too long women have not been believed'

As you might have heard, Oprah Winfrey went on stage at the Golden Globes on Sunday to receive an honorary gong for outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment and proceeded to create the impression she’s ready now to make outstanding contributions to the world of politics. Like doing mankind the giant favour of denying Donald Trump a second term.

No question, her speech was a humdinger. “Their time is up,” she declared a first time, serving notice not just to men who thought they would always get away with demeaning women, but also, implicitly, to Trump and his entourage. “Their time is up,” she said again, popping prosperous bums from seats in the ballroom where the awards were nearing completion. When she said it a third time, everyone was on their feet, tears on their cheeks.

Winfrey is not a person short of achievements. She gave away cars on TV. She founded her own broadcast network (called OWN). She started a book club. She acted. She was a producer on Broadway. She befriended presidents. She’s a billionaire. Still this was quite something. With one address lasting ten minutes, she forced the entire country to take seriously the proposition that she could be the Democratic nominee in 2020. And that she could beat Trump.

It is no less remarkable that she did it at the Golden Globes, a pantomime version of the Oscars with more jauntiness than credibility. At least the Foreign Press Association had the sense not to invite Ricky Gervais back as master of ceremonies. It is hard to imagine he would have set the right tone on Sunday. Crudeness, especially from men, is out right now, I think it’s fair to say.

There are examples in American history of single speeches if not creating political careers from scratch, which is what we would be talking about here, then at least catapulting those who delivered them into entirely new orbits of political relevance. But generally speaking they have not occurred at celebrity award shows. They have happened at places concerned with politics.

The most famous of these would surely be the Cross of Gold address delivered by a former Congressman from Nebraska, William Jennings Bryan, at the Democratic National Convention in 1896. In it, he took on the incumbent Democrat president, Grover Cleveland, for defending America’s continuing embrace of the Gold Standard, insisting instead that the country switch to ‘bimetallism’ with gold and silver as legal tender.

It also went down well. Delegates at the convention erupted into near madness, screaming their approval, waving hats and canes. “Some,” wrote reporter at the scene, reacted “like demented things, divested themselves of their coats and flung them high in the air”. Even though he had just lost a race for the US Senate, Bryan was nominated for president the very next day. Not bad going, even if in the end he lost the White House that year to Republican William McKinley.

Barack Obama delivering his keynote speech in Boston, 2004

Then, of course, we have the example of Barack Obama in 2004. Then merely a state senator from Illinois (though a candidate at the time for the US Senate) he was invited by that year’s Democrat nominee, John Kerry, to take on the coveted job as keynote speaker at the party’s national convention in Boston. He too managed to hit it out of the park.

Writing for the New York Times in 2016, journalist Mark Leibovitch recalled being in Boston and the young senator protesting to him that the wild reaction to his speech and the speculation that followed of his running for president four years later would quickly subside. The “flavour of the month, or the flavour of the week, or whatever,” is how Obama described himself. Either he had already mastered the art of false modesty or he was simply wrong. The draft-Obama train that departed the station because of that one Boston oration never slowed down, but simply gained momentum until he was indeed nominated and elected in 2008.

Yet, there is nothing hard and fast here. It is possible to mesmerise delegates at a party convention while harbouring zero interest in one day becoming president, even if your husband has had the job for the previous eight years. That would be Michelle Obama, who got sizzling grades for her words at Hillary Clinton’s convention in Philadelphia in 2016. The first black female president she will never be. So go Oprah, we are meant to chant.

We also have a fine example of a young, aspiring politician giving a dog of a speech at a national convention only to go on to win the keys to the Oval Office four years later. That would be Bill Clinton, who like Obama 20 years later, was given the keynote slot by then candidate Michael Dukakis at the 1988 party convention in Atlanta. It was so long – 33 minutes in all – and so boring, the hall erupted in cheers when Clinton said the words “in conclusion”.

“It was like watching a car crash in slow motion. It was so painful,” Sandy Berger, who helped draft that speech and would later become Clinton’s National Security Advisor, recalled in an interview with CNN last year. “At some point this thing got so unruly that they turned up the lights. ... My stomach was absolutely tied in knots.”

Who knows what is in Winfrey’s mind? Her close pal and broadcaster Gayle King said she’d discussed the reaction to the Globes speech with her and she was “intrigued” about possibly running in 2020 but nothing more. “She loves this country and would like to be of service in some way. But I don't think she's actively considering it at this time,” she said.

She would be well advised to remember this. You can give a great speech and not become president. You can give a lousy speech and become president. There is no straight line in these things, especially if the address you are being feted for was delivered to a bunch of actors in Beverly Hills. History doesn't rule out a President Winfrey. But also advises us to calm down.

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