'Hi. It's Oprah Winfrey'
It was instantly clear this was no imposter. That distinctive voice. Her Highness, inexplicably and surrealistically on Line 1. No assistant announcing, 'Please hold for Oprah.' Just her.
It was early October 2004, and my thoughts were consumed by the race for President of the United States between Prez G.W. Bush—gunning for his second term—and Sen. John Kerry.
The contentious campaigns had by then reached the “Your Mama, and your Daddy too!” stage when name-calling supersedes anything resembling constructive issues dialogue. Only a superhero could save this thing from sinking further into the muck of swift boats and flip flops.
Where have you gone, Oprah Winfrey? Our nation turns its jaundiced eyes to you.
This was the question I'd raised that very day in my weekly _Hollywood Reporter_ column, The Pulse (read it here: http://bit.ly/rayandoprah). Moreover, I posed plenty of others: Why wouldn’t Oprah take a stand in the Presidential race on her show? Why didn’t she have the candidates on to answer questions weightier than, “Why don’t you smile more, senator?” She seemed to be willfully disengaged from the whole process, rarely so much as mentioning the forthcoming election. Didn’t she care about America? Who did she think she was, anyway, a deity unblemished by such trivial matters?
It got to be around 2:30 that afternoon at my home office when the phone rang.
“Ray Richmond, please.”
“It’s Oprah Winfrey.”
It was instantly clear this was no imposter. That distinctive voice. Her Highness, inexplicably and surrealistically on Line 1. No assistant announcing, “Please hold for Oprah.” Just her.
Well, not just her.
(God called me Ray! God called me Ray!)
“I’m here with four of my producers joining us on this call. We read your column today with great interest.”
“Oh, you get it all the way there in Chicago?”
“Yes we do. And we were wondering what you might suggest we do on the show to involve the Presidential candidates.”
My face grew suddenly flushed. It felt like an out of body experience, as if I were hovering over this shell-shocked, unwashed and unshaven figure. I put down the phone for five seconds to shake loose the cobwebs and take stock. Yes, I was conscious. Yes, I was about to center an Oprah story meeting as an unpaid consultant.
Yes, I had abruptly transformed from a slovenly freelance journalist in his underwear into The Go-To Guy For Queen Oprah I.
“So then let me get this straight. Do you really care what I have to say or is this you just yanking my chain with, like, ‘OK Mister Smarty Pants, what bright ideas have you got, hmmm?’”
I frankly couldn’t believe I’d even had the guts to say it, that I had the presence of mind to speculate aloud if this were just a sporty opportunity to belittle and intimidate some media dweeb.
“No, we really care what you have to say. Your column got us to thinking. So what are your thoughts?”
It was utterly inconceivable. She had deemed my judgment officially worthy of…well...something.
Life had handed me Oprah, so I made Oprah-ade, proceeding over the next 15 minutes to tell she and her production minions how to run their show. A week with Bush. A week with Kerry. Lots of audience questions. National, televised town hall meetings.
They all seemed to embrace what I had to say. Oprah thanked me for my time and my ideas. She promised to give them serious consideration. She bid goodbye.
And then she proceeded to do nothing.
We now shoot forward a little more than 2 ½ years, to May 2007. Oprah announces that she is endorsing Illinois Senator Barack Obama for President in 2008. Not only has she leaped into the election fray; she’s done it with 18 months to spare. She would become a one-woman promotional machine for the man who’d win the White House.
Why the sudden political passion and zealotry from a woman who previously kept partisanship and TV as separate as church and state? One could guess that it stemmed from Obama’s race, or his Illinois roots, or his Kennedy-esque youth and vitality.
Or one might step back to a certain telephone conversation in October 2004 with a journalist who called Oprah out, stoked her conscience, unchained her accountability…and left her determined to do things differently the next time.
Were you to reach the latter conclusion while at the same time crediting Oprah’s vocal support with an essential assist in Obama’s ascension to the Oval Office, it would mean that I personally altered the very direction of the Free World.
Yeah, let’s go with that.