At some point, the woman who became a big sister to much of America would have to exit center stage. We always knew that, but still we were not quite prepared—though many see Oprah Winfrey's decision to walk away from her show as merely the latest in a line of smart moves. Cable seems to be the future. And broadcast TV is looking more and more like the past. Numbers for daytime talk shows, after all, have been in serious decline for more than a decade. Not that such shows don't still have some life in them, which is why people are speculating about "the next Oprah," even though the real Oprah is not leaving for nearly two years. (Click here to follow Ellis Cose).
The list of possible contenders is long, though none has her particular gifts. Dr. Phil McGraw has mastered a shtik mixing ridicule and tough love, but seems somewhat lacking (particularly for a shrink) in compassion. And Ellen DeGeneres, something of a societal icon for advancing acceptance of those who are openly gay, is more interested in being funny (or silly) than wise. Rachael Ray, while undeniably effervescent and upbeat, is not always easy to take. Tyra Banks? Well, she seems more taken with herself than with any particular purpose. And Sarah Palin, widely hailed as a potential TV talk megastar if she eschews elective politics, is better at polarizing people than unifying them.
Oprah, in contrast, excels at being the un-Palin. She makes it easy for Americans with little in common to believe they belong to the same community. In part, that is because she is such an involved—and generally nonjudgmental—listener, and one who encourages the same trait in her viewers. So they struggle with Oprah to understand, say, how actress Mackenzie Phillips, after being raped, could return to her father's bed; or how the Rev. Ted Haggard's battle with forbidden sexual urges could lead him to betray all that he held dear. And because Oprah does not play it just for shock value and entertainment, the audience ends up with something approaching understanding.
Yes, she is too easily taken in by tear-jerkers offering the promise of social uplift. So she endorsed James Frey's fiction of depravation and redemption, and did the same with a made-up Holocaust love story. But she is better than anyone in the public arena at helping people see beyond any one person's particular circumstance to those things we share and that connect us.
It is an ability that inspires trust. So her fans are more than willing to hear her out when she advises them on books to read or on coping with life's adversities.
That she is black makes her accomplishments all the more remarkable. Some 20-plus years ago when she came along, no one could credibly imagine an America where a black woman served as big sister in chief. In more ways than one, she paved the way for Barack Obama. While Obama was still in law school, she was showing how to build bridges to diverse constituencies. As she evolved (in a genre known more for tawdriness than for anything remotely redeeming), she managed to keep her focus and her dignity. She certainly dealt with some risqué matter. But in the end, her priority was not to shock but to celebrate, not to alienate but to unite.
So how do you replace that? It's impossible to think of a public figure today who brings the same mix to the table. Certainly Obama, as a candidate, displayed many of Oprah's talents (not to mention a few of his own). But as president, he is discovering that partisanship is an inescapable burden. He may see himself as above the fray, but his opponents beg to differ. However he may try to position himself, the opposition sees him as the enemy—or, in extreme cases, as a foreign devil. And there is nothing he can do to overcome that.
In another era, newsman Walter Cronkite played a unifying role. But that was in an altogether different time, when America was less fragmented, less demographically complex, and when network wise men (at that point there were no network wise women) mattered a lot more than they do today.
The fact is, no one will replace Oprah. At least her fans have a couple of years to adjust to that. And maybe by then her role will be obsolete. Not that I'm exactly holding my breath here. But perhaps at this point we won't need a warm authority figure beaming at us who conveys empathy, peddles perseverance, and gently helps us realize that, despite all that divides us, we have more in common than we normally see.