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Jewish World Review Jan. 11, 2000/ 4 Shevat, 5760

Marianne M. Jennings

Marianne M. Jennings
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Oprah's lemmings -- I HAVE TRIED TO SEE the draw of Oprah. She has been grating on me since she interviewed Michael Jackson and she and Michael sang together. This incident made Barbara Walters look like Socrates. It's a good thing Oprah didn't get the Monica Lewinsky interview for we might have been subjected to duo thong-snapping in prime time.

I managed to ignore Oprah through the mad cow lawsuit brought after she swore off burgers on the air during a vegetarian wacko's description of death by ground round. As Oprah goes, so goes the country and with beef sales down, ranchers sued for libel. Oprah won largely because she had the jury as guests on her show, which she moved to Texas for the trial. Oprah gushed on the court house steps, "The First Amendment rocks." I'm must look up "rocks" in Blackstone.

But a 1999 poll that put Oprah as the country's most visionary leader among women (52%) and men (34%) has brought me to the breaking point. Other also-ran visionaries in the poll were Martha Stewart, Estee Lauder and Donna Karan, all the deep-thinkers of our time made the list. Well, deep thinkers and colorizers. I must look up "visionary" in Webster's People.

In my quest to understand Oprah power, I reviewed her joint books with hangers-on. In the Kitchen with Rosie is Oprah's cook's cookbook with Oprah's favorite recipes. Why does a society need to eat like Oprah? The book with her trainer, Bob Greene, is filled with warm anecdotes like how many times Oprah had to relieve herself on their long runs together. I don't have a trainer but I've learned to go to the bathroom before I run. The neighbors might look askance at a buck naked premenopausal woman in their Bougainvillea. We've already pushed the envelope with our dog who has her own stories about relief during exercise.

I am told that Oprah's power is her weight; her ratings climb as her weight does. And she does use those ratings. Her book club has turned obscure authors into celebrity millionaires. In one segment she sang the name of a book. This ability to send people scurrying to buy books (she has launched 28 consecutive best sellers with 20 million book sales) is puzzling for Oprah's book tastes are entirely predictable.

According to the New York Times, the Oprah book club selections have female authors (22 of the 28), small town settings, lead female characters who don't work, and darn good soap opera spin.
Editors are now commissioning Oprah books. There's something wrong with a country where citizens looks to television hosts for their reading lists and editors gear their lists for the next Oprah at 4:00.

My anti-Oprahism isn't jealousy. I reserve the wicked green eye for the grace of Audrey Hepburn, the mind of Gertrude Himmelfarb, or the insight of Barbara Olson. Perhaps Oprah's ego is the irritant. While on hold when I called Oprah's headquarters in Chicago to verify a few things for this column, I was treated to background music -- Oprah singing. If she tries to take over Susan Lucci's Broadway role in Annie Get Your Gun, I'll denounce my citizenship.

I was finally referred to the helpful research department, to wit, "We don't verify personal information." What could possibly be personal information about a woman whose book reveals how many times she goes to the bathroom while jogging?

Perhaps it is Oprah's attitude. When David Letterman called Oprah for a cameo on his show when he journeyed to Chicago she responded, "I am totally out of town." How is one totally out of town? Is one partially in town with a foot in Lake Michigan? Oprah and her erstwhile fiancÚ, Stedman, taught a graduate course on leadership this past fall at Northwestern University. I have no doubt Oprah held the students rapt. In the Entertainment Tonight world of Gen Xers, Oprah rocks. I'd have Oprah come and speak to my students too. But Oprah would face introspective questions I pose to other speakers. Why did her last movie, Beloved, flop? And what would her advice on leadership be if she weren't a star?

Perhaps Oprah is annoying because no one asks the whys of the homage we pay or examines what we're paying homage to. A life of marathons, live-in boyfriends, diets and moving from one thing to another perhaps because fulfillment is elusive. Oprah represents the expression of self: Doing what she wants, when she wants, because she wants to and hoping something satisfies. Her draw is the odd desire for her self-centered existence --- the envy of our times. Perhaps it's the inexplicable admiration for a woman whose values differ so from mine and those I wish for my daughters.

I want for them something more than $725 million and a successful book club, because there are other measures of success ever so subtle in their importance and oh so fulfilling in their simple execution. I expect more from them.

Perhaps Oprah is not the irritant but simply the manifestation of a culture searching for meaning in all the wrong places and vision in all the wrong people. I'm totally rocked by this thought.

JWR contributor Marianne M. Jennings is a professor of legal and ethical studies at Arizona State University. Send your comments by clicking here.


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© 2000, Marianne M. Jennings