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Architect of Obama's campaign has advice for Oprah

Oprah is a cultural icon; a familiar and revered brand so well-known and pervasive that she no longer needs a surname...

Posted: Jan. 9, 2018 1:22 PM
Updated: Jan. 9, 2018 8:41 PM

Oprah is a cultural icon; a familiar and revered brand so well-known and pervasive that she no longer needs a surname. She is brilliant, thoughtful and famously well-read, with a long history of activism. She has a great American story, enormous empathy and an extraordinary ability to communicate powerfully and authentically, as we saw during her speech at the Golden Globes.

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Standing before a country hungry for a unifying, optimistic message, Oprah was kinetic, triggering an instant sensation on social media where #Oprah2020 has been blazing since. In an interview after the Globes, her longtime companion, Stedman Graham, tossed a log -- ok, more like a tree trunk -- on the fire when he said that Oprah "absolutely would do it," adding that it is "up to the people."

It's hard to say whether Stedman was acting purposefully or, moved by Oprah's remarkable performance and post-show libations, simply got carried away. (If it was the second, one wonders how the conversation went when the two got home?) And what about Oprah's best friend Gayle King, who said on "CBS This Morning " on Tuesday that Oprah is "very intrigued by the idea of running?"

More than one person mentioned to me that the speech reminded them of Barack Obama's electrifying baptism in national politics, his keynote at the 2004 Democratic convention. But Obama did not jump from that stage in Boston to the Oval Office. His was a long, hard slog from the warm embrace of the speaker's platform to the cold realities of life as a presidential candidate.

As Obama can attest, the campaign trail is replete with relentless pressure and unending indignities. A candidate surrenders control over his or her life and subjugates everything to the voracious needs of the campaign. Every past action and statement dating back to childhood is re-evaluated through a political lens. And perhaps most dauntingly for a candidate like Oprah, rather than choosing your own topics, the topics are foisted on you -- often by opponents or mischievous reporters baiting a trap.

Running for president is an excruciating gauntlet. Talented as Obama was, it took him months to hit his stride as a candidate and even longer to figure out how to power through the pain to savor the joy of leading a worthy cause.

I don't know how Oprah would do with all of that. Yes, she has navigated her life and career magnificently to date, with shrewd decisions that have made her a beloved billionaire and huge commercial success. But she did it on her terms, something almost impossible to dictate as a candidate for president.

She would have to overcome the doubts of Americans who may be more jaundiced about celebrity presidents after the Trump experience. Experience in government -- at any level -- may come into vogue.

And if it works out -- if she runs that gauntlet and emerges on the other side -- what she will have won is the gravest and most difficult job on the planet; one she would live with 24 hours a day, seven days a week. She also would enter a restrictive security cocoon from which she would never entirely escape for the rest of her days.

If you care about actually making a difference, the payoff of being the president can be extraordinary and satisfying. But the price is high.

When Obama was in the final throes of considering the race in the first days of 2007, I shared with him my political advice, which was that there was an opportunity for him in '08 that might never be there again.

As a friend, however, I told him that I wanted him to think clearly about whether he was ready to make that commitment for himself and his family.

"Well, it turns out that being Barack Obama turns out to be a pretty good gig," he said, acknowledging that he didn't feel he needed to be president to complete himself. "But if you're going to be in public service, why not try to do it at the very top, where you can make the greatest difference?

Oprah is not in public service and she very well may have the greatest gig on the planet.

Maybe she will yield to the urgent pleas of Americans looking for a celebrity force powerful enough to counter Donald Trump.

Or perhaps the same impeccable instincts that has made Oprah such a success will keep her from risking it all to enter an arena from which no one emerges unscathed.

Twitter is ablaze with chants of "Run, Oprah, run!"

I would suggest another:

"Think twice, Oprah, think twice!"

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