Chelsea Manning, Oprah Winfrey, and the Problem with Famous People in Office

Chelsea Manning and Oprah Winfrey, headlines buzz, is public office for these famous (or infamous) women on the table?

Follow-up question: is this really that abnormal for America?

Did you know Ronald Reagan was best known for co-starring in a movie with a monkey before running for political office? It was called Bedtime for Bonzo, and now you know a fun and interesting fact about the man who, as president, killed unions, ramped up the military industrial complex to new highs, and ignored the HIV epidemic as it killed thousands.

Just something to ruminate on while we talk.

Chelsea Manning, Oprah Winfrey, and Spotlight Politics

photo of chelsea manning
Chelsea Manning, shortly after her release from prison.

Oprah Winfrey and Chelsea Manning both receive a lot of attention whenever their names are mentioned. For the former, it’s usually in reference to free cars and her long-running talk show; the latter, to leaking thousands of secret government documents and spending seven years in a military prison.

But now, ever since Winfrey’s speech at the Golden Globes, there’s been a ton of hype about her possible run for president in the 2020 election. While it initially came up as a joke, the moment the idea was aired, social media exploded – it seems that every liberal democrat with an internet connection was rallying behind Oprah, hoping her next big prize giveaway would be to knock Donald Trump out of the White House.

Chelsea Manning, for her part, announced her candidacy for the U.S. Senate, running against incumbent Ben Cardin. While the very idea of Oprah running for president had people standing in applause, Manning’s actual candidacy was far more controversial – the internet was chock full of reasons to be against her, ranging from thoughtful, to political, to outright bigoted.

Trump was a billionaire narcissist famous for bankruptcy, New York City corruption, and a shitty reality show. Reagan, as stated, was an okay actor famous for being one-half of a human-chimpanzee duo. America is no stranger to putting famous people in positions of power, qualifications be damned – are Winfrey and Manning just two more logs on the fire of stupid decisions?

Manning Makes Waves, Winfrey Works Mindlessness

Before we answer the question of whether the two are even qualified for office, let’s take a look at why Manning and Winfrey are two different sides of the same problem.

First, let’s look at Oprah.

One could argue that Oprah is, in many ways, more qualified to be president than Donald Trump. She’s run multiple charity organizations and foundations, donated millions of dollars of her own money to worthy causes, and has started or been involved with numerous projects to help young girls succeed, such as the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls.

On the flip side, she’s also widely known for “The Oprah Effect” – her ability to dramatically sway public support to a brand, product, or person. This is exemplified by her yearly list of “Favorite Things,” where she shared products she liked with her fans, and also, her endorsement of Barack Obama in 2008, which some political analysts have credited for his victory over Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries leading up to the 2008 election.

photo of oprah winfrey obama endoresment

In the battle for the minds of the casual, not-so-political, often-centrist voter and consumer, Winfrey wins every time.

So, great – Oprah could probably win the popularity contest, and knock Trump out of office. But what would she do once she got there? Would she finally close Guantanamo Bay, like Obama promised he would? What about the drone program, and the president’s ability to unilaterally attack anywhere, anytime, with zero oversight and accountability? What would her policies be on trade with China, cooperation with Russia in fighting global terrorism, or recognizing Palestine as a separate country?

An interesting question – if Winfrey and Manning were both up for the same seat of power, would you vote for the one who threw her support behind the man who dramatically increased the NSA spying program and government mass surveillance, or would you vote for the woman who spent seven years in prison for trying to expose government wrongdoing?

It’s a valid question. But, to be fair, Chelsea Manning isn’t exactly a perfect candidate for public office, either.

Her whistleblowing, while lauded by many as heroic and in the same vain as Daniel Ellsberg and the Snowden leaks that would come years after, is despised by many of the mind that what she did was a traitorous act. Combined with the fact that she’s transgender, and it’s unlikely that Manning will ever get much love from the conservative side of American politics.

It’s also hard to imagine that many establishment Democrats would support her, given Obama was the one who cracked down on her for her whistleblowing, and that many Democrats still vote in line with Republicans when it comes to maintaining the insane, near-Orwellian military and surveillance activities of the American government.

Manning clearly needs to work on her “optics”, as well – her recent appearance at a party with alt-right activists was less than optimal.

While one can see what she was trying to do – Manning said she hoped to gain information on how the alt-right operates, and possibly build some bridges – the general impression was that the meeting was inappropriate, out of place, and possibly legitimizing a group of people who are outwardly racist, homo and trans-phobic, and prejudiced against religious groups, such as Jews and Muslims.

So, what is there to make of two women in the spotlight, one a celebrity with little to no political experience, the other a political pariah with little media pull, when it comes to holding office in the American system?

The Takeaway

Oprah opening her school for young girls in 2007.

Oprah, at best, would probably be not far off from the likes of Barack Obama and the Clintons – she runs in a lot of the same circles, is generally popular without being controversial, and would most likely lean on the same kinds of policies. You might see some generally progressive ideas spring forth, but, as with the Obama administration, there would likely be a lot of compromise and gridlock – much of Obama’s legacy has since been undone by Trump, and if another Trump-like politician held the Whitehouse after Winfrey, it’s hard to imagine her legacy would fare much better.

Manning, at best, would be incredibly controversial, and probably would not be able to get many things done – she would face the same gridlock problems as Obama or Oprah would – but on progressive issues, it’s far more likely she would aim high and take no quarter, given her history of defying the government’s authoritarian tendencies, as well as her status as a transwoman. It’s difficult to imagine Manning voting to support continued mass surveillance, or to kick transgender people out of the military.

Furthermore, Chelsea Manning is pushing her way into the Senate, a much lower-profile position than Oprah may choose to run for – her main opponent, Ben Cardin, while generally a solid vote for the Democratic party, is 74 years old, and, presuming he won’t live forever, it might make sense for a more progressively-minded person like Manning to take over. The Democrats would keep their consistent vote, and Manning would get some vital political experience.

Oprah would be a “safe” presidential candidate, who wouldn’t cause much controversy, and would most likely push for the same status quo of the Obama years, before leaving office and her accomplishments up for the next president to further, or kill.

Manning would be controversy incarnate solely for her background, but would probably be a reliable Democratic voice in the Senate, breaking with the crowd only to advocate for more progressive goals.

Anything she gets done will certainly not be a result of star power, but will be done in tandem with other members of government, and, given she would be in the Senate and not the presidency, would be more likely to remain a permanent fixture. A Senate career might also lead to higher office, and given time and effort, Manning may be able to win over some of her detractors.

Famously Fit, or Just Famous?

At the end of the day, the public at large will support whomever they support – if recent elections are proof of anything, it’s that star power and popularity can mean a lot more than qualifications or stance on important issues, and that’s true on both sides of the aisle.

But would Oprah Winfrey or Chelsea Manning be in the same group as Donald Trump or Ronald Reagan?

Probably not – Oprah is by far a better fit for president than Trump or Reagan, since, while she is also a celebrity first, she has shown some ability and accomplishments in public service, and seems to understand some basic truths about politics, given her endorsements and activities. If Winfrey ran for president, it would be hers to lose – on the other hand, Hillary Clinton was thought to have the 2016 election in the bag, and she still lost to Trump.

Manning, meanwhile, is coming from the opposite angle, all position and no clout, her stated goals being pretty damn far from anything conservatives would support, and a bit further left than the Democratic establishment. Her campaign will only survive if she is able to convince a large swath of Americans that she’s not just throwing herself into the ring without purpose, and that her past – controversial as it may be – could be an asset to America’s future.

Regardless of affiliation, most people would probably agree it’s foolish to vote for someone just because you recognize their name and face.

Qualifications should matter. Oprah Winfrey and Chelsea Manning are both household names – as were Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan. But unlike Trump and Reagan, both have demonstrated a sense that there is a greater good to public involvement before getting into politics, and each have acted politically in ways which, arguably, have made positive changes in the world.

While it would undoubtedly be better for prospective politicians to win first by merit, second by name… if you have to do it the other way around, Winfrey and Manning are probably the best qualified in history.

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