I understand the impulse to want to have your most inspiring celebrity run for President. I understand the impulse to want to have a candidate who is a political outsider. I even understand the desire for a candidate who is entertaining, who speaks my language, instead of getting all nerdy about the issues. I understand all of these impulses and they are all desperately misguided.
In the age of The Donald’s term as President, people are feeling a lot of things — maybe all of the things. If you watched any of the debates he participated in during his candidacy, then you saw a plethora of times when he shouted what he would do, what he “believed,” or what was “disgraceful” without ever giving anything beyond bluster and intellectually shallow self-aggrandizement. He never explained how he would do anything, never displayed any knowledge (or curiosity) of the world’s challenges, never showed a capacity to empathize with anyone. He is just another rich elitist, raised filthy rich. It’s not totally his fault he doesn’t understand the needs of rural Americans — rural North Carolinians — he never had to hang out with us. In the same way, I can’t totally fault him for not saying how he would govern because he had never governed.
He deserves credit for realizing that many people will vote for him because of his supposed cultural stances. Even though the majority saw through him, he still got the job. He is an angry entertainer, not someone equipped to govern. He surely didn’t win because he was likeable (even his supporters think he’s a jerk), but he did win because he was recognizable, he spoke words that made people feel things, but he had — still has — no idea how to govern. He is exhibit A that it’s misguided to insist on a President from outside the system.
Governing is different from changing people’s minds. Governing is about making the legislative and executive decisions that directly affect people’s real lives. To govern well is to make decisions that are good for everybody, not just the party that supported you. Sometimes that requires asking for sacrifice in order to help the majority of Americans. Governing means knowing how to get things done. Governing means knowing the issues well enough to know when to compromise and when to be stubborn. It means accepting and honoring that the person across the aisle has just as much right to their opinion as you do and they just might even be more right than you are. Governing means remaining curious about and committed to learning how to improve, staying open to new information, preferring good solutions over party line.
These are the reasons I don’t want Oprah Winfrey to run for President, even though I love her. She could probably win. She’s certainly smart enough to learn the nuances of every relevant issue she would face. She is probably one of the most admired Americans. She is certainly one of the most recognizable personalities in the world — and she also cares about her fans. The problem is that likability and celebrity are not qualifications for being President. They might be great for getting elected, but they offer very little in terms of actually doing the job.
We’d be better off if Democrats and Republicans alike would recommit to the idea that the purpose of the government is to govern (hopefully well), not winning elections. So, to the Democrats: just because one unqualified entertainer got elected in 2016 doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea to try and do the same thing on your side of the aisle. Oprah could win, but what record of governing does she have? She has, herself, recognized this. Personally, I think her most positive impact on the world is culturally — keep speaking up for the rights of those on the margins, keep speaking up for goodness, keep getting us to read, keep teaching us to be better and smarter.
I understand wanting outsiders who haven’t drunk the Washington or Raleigh political Kool-Aid. I think one of the great challenges is that some politicians stay in office so long that they forget what really matters in the neighborhoods of their districts. Fresh perspective is well and good, but the wisdom to be both a leader and a team player is far more needed right now.
To be sure, I don’t mind when entertainers share their political and social views. It’s their right and even responsibility to share what they see. I also don’t mind when entertainers seek political office. I just think that it’s necessary to know how to govern before seeking the highest political office in the land. To put it another way, my best friend is a wonderful person and we have really similar political perspectives, but I would never ask him to do oral surgery on my daughter.
Regardless of whether you appreciate Ronald Reagan or not, he is an instructive example. He was an actor who became president of the Screen Actors Guild. Then, while riding trains back and forth across the country as a speaker for General Electric, he read voraciously to learn as much as he could about the issues confronting the country. Then he ran and was elected Governor of California. He may not have been a Washington guy, but he was not an outsider to government.
I know that Trump said a lot of things that some people agreed with, but he was always elusive when asked how he would govern. How could he have known? He’d never done it or anything like it. Oprah is brilliant, grounded, savvy, and she says some really important things that I agree with — but that’s not a good enough reason for either of them to be invited to be President. There’s just too much at stake.