The excitement generated by Oprah Winfrey’s Golden Globes speech almost immediately became bigger news than the speech itself, prompting Winfrey to make a public demurral that she doesn’t “have the DNA” to run for president of the United States.
But the import of her message and the way she delivered it should not get lost within the cult-of-personality frenzy that has already spawned a hot market for Oprah 2020 merchandise.
We are all complicit in the sorry state of political speechcraft in 2018, tolerating a low bar despite Barack Obama’s rhetorical gifts. And this is because we only understand speeches as the tools of powerful men. One of Hillary Clinton’s biggest communications problems was her inability to not give a man’s speech. She also fell into the storifying sand trap—touchy-feely anecdote with a first name, three banal sentences, and no resonance whatsoever.
Because we’ve never had a valid alternative to the great man stump speech, we didn’t really know what the alternative would look like. Fortunately, like Justice Stewart with obscenity, we know it when we see it.
And see it we did at the Golden Globes, as Winfrey called out those who have never given up despite “a culture broken by brutally powerful men.” This wasn’t a great man speech about a boy’s ascent from the projects. It wasn’t that his mother cleaned other people’s houses because she believed he had the special gifts to rise to the top.
This was a speech in which a great woman shows how even in a racist and sexist system, there was a way for a girl like her—born a few months before the Supreme Court’s Brown decision—to follow opportunity as far as it would take her. In a sense she showed us the train—Sidney Poitier, Rosa Parks, Recy Taylor, Vernita Lee, Oprah Winfrey, and all the little girls watching the Golden Globes—that is still moving toward equality.
With her overlapping stories, Winfrey presented herself as a beneficiary of the generations of black people and women who have raised their voices against injustice and abuse. She wasn’t presenting herself as the solution to the problem of brutally powerful men; rather, she placed herself within a history of courage and sacrifice to give her accomplishment context. And rather than speak about her own early deprivations, she focused on the lives of the characters she’s played and the people she’s interviewed to make the point that hope is what gets you through “some of the ugliest things life can throw at you.”
This is not the modesty of the hardworking woman in the back office. It’s absolute self-confidence that we rarely see or hear when our leaders open their mouths.
Donald Trump’s extreme flaws as a leader have made us more conscious of the toxic combination of ego and insecurity. That cocktail is present in way more of our Democratic leaders than we’d care to acknowledge.
As a writer, I admit a bias toward Winfrey’s show-don’t-tell approach to communication. “Don’t tell me the moon is shining,” said Chekhov; “show me the glint of light on broken glass.” As a longtime reader and promoter of quality fiction, Winfrey gets that and has shown us the results—a speech that clearly articulates how democracy can work despite entrenched bias and prejudice.
Speaking at a time when nearly all public speakers were men, Mark Twain joked that “there are only two types of speakers in the world: the nervous and the liars.” Oprah was neither in her Golden Globes speech. Regardless of her own involvement in elected office, she gave us an alternative to the rhetoric of entitlement that sustains powerful men. People like to say that if you break it you own it. Winfrey showed us that if you fix it you share it. §