The celebrity endorsement is not exactly new to politics, but then there’s never been a celebrity quite like Oprah Winfrey, who, until now, has never publicly backed a politician. USC history professor Steve Ross says that Barack Obama may have won over the most influential voter of all.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. This week, a famous TV personality entered the political arena. No, not Fred Thompson, who did finally throw his hat into the ring. I'm talking about Oprah. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] [CLIP]: OPRAH WINFREY: He is someone new, someone I think the country needs to get to know. OPRAH WINFREY: This is my senator. My favorite senator! [CHEERS AND APPLAUSE] OPRAH WINFREY: I really do believe in Barack Obama. If he was running for mayor, you know, school superintendent, if he was running for president, I believe in him. [END OF CLIP] BOB GARFIELD: Oprah Winfrey appeals to an impressive base of potential voters. Nearly eight and a half million people watch her program every weekday. Two million buy her magazine. And those are just two components of a media empire that has made her, according to Forbes, the wealthiest woman in the entertainment industry.
Until this presidential race, Winfrey has never publicly endorsed a political candidate. But this weekend, she's hosting a $2,300 a plate fundraiser at her California home for Barack Obama.
The celebrity endorsement is certainly nothing new in presidential politics. But, as University of Southern California history professor Steve Ross explains, Oprah is no regular celebrity. STEVE ROSS: Oprah's endorsement is probably the most important celebrity endorsement in the worlds of television and film that could come out, and here's the reason why. If Oprah can get even one percent of the national population to vote who did not vote before, as we've seen from the last two elections, that one percent can make all the difference in the world. BOB GARFIELD: Oprah Winfrey clearly has transcended race, but do you think she has the ability to mobilize African-Americans in the way that others do not? STEVE ROSS: Yeah, I think she does. African-Americans, as we know, are overwhelmingly Democrat, but in the last few elections they've become increasingly jaded, feeling that the Democrats have taken them for granted and have taken advantage of them.
But when you suddenly get somebody like Oprah behind a candidate, and also a black candidate, I think you have a different situation than you've ever had in the past. BOB GARFIELD: Give me a little history, please. Did Clark Gable ever endorse a candidate or even - I don't know - Barbara Stanwyck, W.C. Fields? STEVE ROSS: Well, the first endorsement I ever saw was around 1912. Mabel Normand, who was a big silent movie star, comedienne, who Charlie Chaplin was working with, went around to the local theaters in Los Angeles endorsing the socialist candidate for mayor. And by the '20s and '30s, most active movie stars who were sort of endorsing politicians would be people like Melvyn Douglas, Edward G. Robinson. But you also had Louis B. Mayer creating a breeding ground for Republicans at MGM Studios.
Famous politicians would come to L.A. and Mayer would find out who the politician's favorite movie star was, and he would make sure that there would be plenty of photographs shot at the studio. And those pictures would be sent throughout the wire services in America and even abroad. And suddenly you would get this huge publicity hit of candidate X with, you know, some major Republican star. And that was, in a sense, the beginning of the really churning out of a kind of formal relationship between Hollywood/Washington. BOB GARFIELD: In the 85 years between Mabel Normand and Oprah Winfrey, which would you say were the most prominent celebrity endorsements and which do you suppose had the greatest effect? STEVE ROSS: In 1960, a young senator from Massachusetts goes up to a New York apartment of the most popular singer [LAUGHS] in America, which was not Elvis, which was not Frank Sinatra but was Harry Belafonte, and asked Belafonte for his endorsement, hoping to, you know, get the black vote.
And he tells Kennedy that he'll endorse him but only if he meets with Martin Luther King. So Kennedy agrees to meet with King, and, in turn, Belafonte films a TV commercial that has him and Kennedy walking into a Harlem apartment talking with an ordinary black couple about their concerns. And that has a huge impact on the African-American community.
If you look at the right, 1968 you have Charlton Heston switching from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party. And he was somebody who was fairly well respected, and, after all, he was Moses. More than anything else, Heston, you know, ushers in an era of image politics that we can see connected directly to Governor Arnold in California today.
And his word carries huge weight amongst many moderate and conservative people in America. And when he announces that he believes Richard Nixon is the man, it creates quite a buzz, and I would say had a significant impact in '68. BOB GARFIELD: Whether it's Charlton Heston or Mabel Normand or Jerry Seinfeld for Kerry, or anybody who can call attention to a candidacy, that's very different from mobilizing the vote. Do you believe that Oprah will have unprecedented success in actually mobilizing votes from real live human beings? STEVE ROSS: Yes, I do. Like a Charlton Heston, she has an image of gravitas. She is seen as a really serious person. The books she endorses are serious books. The issues she raises on her show are serious issues. And so you have millions of people watching her, listening to her, respecting her.
And when Oprah comes out and, particularly for the first time, says, this is somebody you should really pay attention to, I think people are going to really pay attention to Barack. And many of those people who would not have voted in previous elections are now going to go out and vote. BOB GARFIELD: Steve, thank you. STEVE ROSS: My pleasure. BOB GARFIELD: Professor Steve Ross teaches at the University of Southern California. His next book will be titled Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics.