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Where is Oprah?

A Commentary by Susan Estrich

Was it just last month that the Queen of Everything was everywhere, pulling tens of thousands of people into rallies in Iowa, stomping with Barack and Michelle Obama at just the point it seemed his campaign most needed a lift?

It's that point again. But no Oprah.

According to her representatives, she's busy negotiating a deal for the Oprah Winfrey Network. Do I dare say she has lawyers for that?

On her website, there are signs of a backlash, with some Oprah fans openly upset at what they see as her decision to put "race over gender" in her choice of her friend Obama over her friend Hillary, in her decision to throw her support behind the first black with a real chance to make it to the White House, as opposed to the might-be first woman president.

Perhaps even more troubling, more and more women, especially African-American women, seem to be angry at the very notion that this is a race or gender choice, as if they decide how to vote by comparing the importance of their skin color versus their genitalia, as opposed to examining things like issues and experience.

A recent web posting by CNN of one of those race vs. gender stories, this one based on interviews with women in a mostly black beauty salon in South Carolina, generated a storm of response from black women who believed the whole premise of the story was an insult to their intelligence. And it wasn't just black women who were insulted. One white man wrote in to say that maybe he should be interviewed on the race vs. gender question since for him, as a white man, the choice between Clinton and Obama could just as much be seen as race (white, therefore Hillary) vs. gender (male, therefore Obama) as it could for the black women who were supposed to be in such a unique and difficult position, at least according to the premise of the piece. Good point.

What's clear is that there are a lot of people out there who, in making their choice in this hard-fought Democratic race, don't want to be told who they "should" be for or why, much less have their votes explained back to them in race or gender terms.

This complicates things for a woman whose trademark is that everyone loves Oprah.

The problem for celebrities when they take sides in political contests is that there are indeed sides. Some people will be offended because you're not on theirs, and some people will question why you're telling them how to vote or the basis for that advice. Being a celebrity, being Oprah, is about universal appeal, about everybody liking you, about being all things to all people. Politics is about getting more votes than the other candidate, which generally means offending almost as many people as you attract.

The only thing everyone now knows is that the campaign for the Democratic nomination is going to be a fight. Most Democrats, I think, could comfortably support either Hillary or Barack, but that doesn't mean people don't have preferences, strong ones, and it doesn't mean the candidates can't or shouldn't be tough with each other.

I still believe whoever wins will be better off for having been forced to fight for it, but that doesn't mean they won't leave some blood on the floor. I certainly wouldn't blame Oprah if she'd prefer not to be the one spilling blood, but that's what happens when you get in a ring for a real match-up. And that's why I'm not holding my breath waiting for her reappearance. She'll be there for the coronation. Until then, this is politics, not show business. This is an arena in which celebrities can only lose friends, which is not what much-loved celebrities like to do.


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