Oprah Winfrey’s viral Golden Globes speech sounded, to many viewers, like a soaring convention speech — if not her own, then certainly the spotlight-stealing speech delivered as a surrogate for someone else.
Which led to a wistful question, posed by Hillary Clinton fans watching the Oprah 2020 frenzy play out this week: Where the heck was Winfrey in 2016?
Busy with her own business interests that made a full-throated Clinton endorsement too much of a conflict, is part of the answer, according to former campaign aides. And she was simply not as personally invested in Clinton’s candidacy as she had been in the historic run made by her personal friend and fellow Chicagoan eight years earlier — when some economists credited her with helping Barack Obama secure 1 million votes in the Democratic primary alone.
But it wasn’t for lack of trying from Clinton’s Brooklyn headquarters.
In June of 2016, the task of wooing Winfrey was handed over to Minyon Moore, one of Clinton’s longtime advisers, who had recently taken a leave from her consulting job at the Dewey Square Group to work as a senior adviser on political strategy for the campaign.
Winfrey had initially raised hopes in Clinton’s camp by telling “Entertainment Tonight,” during a red-carpet interview, that “I’m with her” — a quick-hit endorsement that buoyed spirits at campaign headquarters, especially because the campaign operatives had not helped Winfrey craft it, or planted it.
Moore was dispatched for some quick follow-up to see what else the country’s biggest motivational speaker and celebrity might be willing to do for Clinton, as the candidate began turning her sights from the never-ending primary against Bernie Sanders to the general election against Donald Trump.
But there was disappointment in Brooklyn when it was reported back that an occasional “I’m With Her,” sprinkled here and there in television interviews, would likely be it, according to multiple former campaign aides.
Moore was well-known as one of a fiercely loyal inner Clinton circle of African-American women whom the former first lady had surrounded herself with and promoted since her days in the East Wing. She also came with a few of her own Oprah-world connections, which originally made the campaign hopeful of more Winfrey kudos to come.
“I knew one of [Winfrey’s] top producers,” Moore said in an interview on Thursday. “We tried to figure out if there was a timing or scheduling match. We tried to figure out what type of interview could work, what kind of event she might do.”
But nothing worked. “It was a timing issue,” Moore said, noting that Winfrey was launching two shows that summer on the Oprah Winfrey Network — “Queen Sugar” and “Greenleaf.”
“She was doubled down on that,” Moore said. “I appreciate the fact that she had a big piece of business she had to deal with. I never took offense to it, and I don’t think Hillary ever took offense to it. She was grateful any time she saw Oprah’s positive comments.”
Ultimately, Winfrey was absent from a campaign trail filled with the country’s A-List celebrities like Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Katy Perry and Cher, who staged concerts, door-knocked and hosted fundraisers. Her commentary on the race was limited to one-liners she delivered only when she was asked about the election while promoting the new shows on her network.
Some of Clinton’s top aides questioned whether a bigger Winfrey boost would have ultimately made any difference in helping them defeat Trump. “2016 calls into question the overall impact of the celebrity endorsement,” said Philippe Reines, Clinton’s longtime gatekeeper in the Senate and at the State Department. “The excitement triggered by celebrities might not be as transferable to a political candidate as it is to a sneaker or hotel chain. Hard to argue that a Kim Kardashian tweet would have flipped the outcome.”
To wit: even a joint Beyoncé-Jay-Z concert and rally for Clinton in Cleveland in the homestretch of the race didn’t deliver the bellwether state of Ohio to Clinton’s column on election night.
The big question mark is whether Winfrey exists in her own category. Some campaign officials said they saw her as a potential major boost with African-American voters and white women — two categories of voters where Clinton ultimately needed the outside help.
A month before the election, Winfrey explained in an interview that she had not been more vocal in her support because she didn’t feel there was any space for her to break through the “noise and chaos and disgusting vitriol” of the election season.
Of Clinton, she added: “You don’t have to like her. Do you like this country? Do you like this country? You better get out there and vote. … Do you like democracy or do you want a demagogue?” That comment further deflated the Brooklyn-based Clinton crew.
But Moore said Winfrey’s endorsement, even without additional rallies or speeches, shouldn’t be dismissed as nothing. “When she was able to speak affirmatively, she did,” Moore said. “I didn’t think of her support as muted, but we all have times in our life when things are our priority, too.”
“Oprah has a brand that is built on a capitalist society,” she added. “Any time someone like that opens their mouth to support a political candidate, they have something at risk. Most of them do this based on their own value system. I have learned to be grateful, because they have empires of their own.”
Apparently Clinton’s brand was too risky to mesh, completely, with Winfrey’s own.
As for a potential Winfrey 2020 bid? Moore said she wouldn’t discourage Winfrey, but she would slow down the hype machine.
“Running for president is a big piece of business, and it is a government,” she said. “No one should ever take that lightly. If she believes she is capable of being a commander in chief for this country, if she believes she wants to recycle her life into public service on a political level, then she has every right to look at it. And I am convinced she will be as thoughtful about her decision as she has been about her career.”
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