“25 years have come and gone / and that story’s still unfolding / suitcase packed, you’re moving on / with the memories you’re holding.”
Surprise guest Paul Simon sang these words to Oprah Winfrey Monday on the season premiere of the 25th and final “Oprah Show” season. In the twilight of anyone’s career, it’s a dear gesture to be recognized like this for one’s body work, for the people one has helped and the lives one has changed. And we’re not talking doctors or teachers here, but a talk show host.
Our jones for Oprah started because she asked the right questions as a reporter, extracted the most important tears from the most important people and brought to light the issues others passed on. She did Good. And out of that came Oprah the Mogul, Oprah the Car-Gifter, Oprah the Career-Launcher. Our gateway drug was her big heart, and it’s now her clout we’re most addicted to.
“This is really my last chance to do something big,” Oprah said on Monday’s season premiere. Then she announced, in a manner more befitting a South American football announcer, that she’d be taking that day’s 300-strong studio audience on a trip to Australia in December. Lesson learned: proximity to Oprah means potential for huge gifts. Much better than “I was on ‘The Oprah Show’ and all I got was inspired” t-shirts, certainly.
Attention from Oprah is like another chance in life to win the lottery, or to some, the chance to get God’s attention through his richest prophet with the best reputation. Who hasn’t wished Oprah would by some miracle find out one’s individual problems and arrive with her booming voice and open arms to fix them? She’s bailed out folks in foreclosure, under-educated children in Africa, victims of abuse and entrepreneurs with big ideas but little resources. When your higher power has its hands full, it’s good to know there’s an earthly resource for your troubles whose attention is equally hard to come by.
Most impressively, Oprah has found a ways to help others without scandal or hypocrisy. Think about the gravity of that. Unlike many others with enviable money stockpiles, she didn’t make her fortune on big oil or insider trading or by exploiting underpaid workers. She speaks, and she has a hell of a way about it. She may be the only person to have ever made the beef industry nervous. She cajoled Tom Cruise into ruining her sofa on national television. She’s guardian angel to those who believe. If Oprah ran for office, her opponent would have to Photoshop her eating kittens from a rotisserie in an attempt to somehow sully her near-perfect image. The absolute worst thing we can say about Oprah is some of us find her annoying. Is that the best we Gawker-reading, madly criticizing humans can do? New Yorkers, are you awake?
We should be skeptical of that which seems too good to be true. Really, we know very little about this woman. But the circle of life is often guided by the circle of commerce, and in that respect the reason she has all that cash to do Good with in the first place is because of us. If cash is a vote, then every time we buy Oprah’s book club books or her magazine or watch her show, we give her the means to write the important checks. Our spending habits and TV viewership prove our belief in her brand. In 2008, Oprah was BusinessWeek’s 47th most generous American philanthropist, having given away an estimated $306 million in her lifetime. For comparison, the same chart shows the Walton family has given away over $2 billion in Walmart’s lifespan. Ask yourself if you feel as good about that as Oprah’s contributions, then ask yourself why that’s so.
Oprah’s long-running show may be on the way out, but she’s not really going anywhere. On 1/1/11 (way to start with a bang), her Oprah Winfrey Network will launch on cable with a 24-hour Oprahfied health and lifestyle cycle. We know Fergie (not the hit songstress, but the Brit dutchess) is already signed up for her own starting-over program, but otherwise no one’s blabbing about the fine programming details yet. The best appetizer we’ve found so far is the column on OWN’s site already asking readers, “Do you need financial bootcamp?” “Does your mother or wife deserve a makeover?” “Tell us your story.” So if your heart sank when you heard “The Oprah Show” was a goner because you spent last 25 years not trying hard enough to be an Oprah beneficiary, fret not. You may not be on your way to a fabulous Aussie getaway, but there are plenty more Favorite Things to come.