I’ve long said that if I ever had the opportunity to choose somebody to act as an advocate on my behalf, it would be Oprah Winfrey. I do believe that she has more charisma, warmth and ability to persuade than Barack Obama multiplied by puppies. She’s an irresistible force, and it’s virtually impossible to imagine a circumstance in which a person— enveloped within her amber glow— wouldn’t do exactly what she asked.
In spite of, and because of this, it’s unfashionable in many circles to like her. The cult- like devotion she inspires with her easy amalgamation of spirituality and commerce scares people, and her ever extending brand seems to wend it’s tentacles around just about everything. She just seems too evenly pressed, too ambitious and to have the slavish devotion of too many people for her to be anything but the embodiment of some biblical prophecy that we should all fear and loathe.
But regardless of whether you love her or hate her, you have to admit that she’s an utterly extraordinary person. Born in 1954 to a poor, unwed mother in rural Mississippi, Oprah was raised in a Milwaukee ghetto. It was there, at the age of nine, where she was raped. Later, at 14, she gave birth to a child who died in infancy. From this start, she managed to ascend to the astounding, iconic heights she now inhabits. Now, that’s a lot of stuff to overcome. Personally, I feel victimized because I get seasonal allergies. But clearly, I’m no Oprah, she’s special stuff, and her great gift is to try and teach us to how to be more like her. Hell, she even refers to her shows as “classes.”
No matter, on Wednesday, after 25 years, she ended the cultural institution—as vividly American as “Sesame Street” and Serial Killers—that was her daytime talk show. For many, 4:00pm will never be the same.
Of course, people shouldn’t fall into despair and start leaping off of buildings, as Oprah isn’t planning on turning into a wise, old tree or anything. She’s going to continue with her magazine as well as host a show on her OWN ( get it? Oprah Winfrey Network?) network, but it won’t be the same. There won’t be an audience— who were always shot in dewy-eyed states of adoration— on the new show and this reverence vacuum will dramatically change the vibe. For instance, nobody will be there to receive the life-altering gifts ( cars, storage solutions, Spanx!!) that helped to consecrate the marriage of materialism and self-actualization that propelled the Oprah industry into the stratosphere.
The void that she’s leaving is vast, and many will try to fill her shoes and become the new life-style guru who will lead us to the promised land. Ridiculously, people have already been talking about elevating Gwyneth Paltrow to this position. Obviously, this would be a beautiful train wreck for all sentient viewers, as we’d get to see a kind of WASP version of Tyra Banks, imploring an audience that likely hates her, why they should strive to be like her.
Paltrow, who is a kind of anti-Winfrey, seems to embody the notion that success is largely a product of circumstance. She’s pretty, privileged and born to opportunity—a royalty of sorts— and watching her it’s easy to forget that great success is usually propelled by great qualities. We mock Paltrow and her ambition because she was born with every conceivable advantage, and celebrate Winfrey because she rose against the tide by sheer force of talent and will.
This got me to thinking of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Recently, amidst the unsurprising scandal unfolding around him, a friend sent me the “Proust Questionnaire” that Schwarzenegger had done on the back page of Vanity Fair Magazine shortly before he became Governor of California. Typically, the responses to these little quizzes are whimsical, fun and edged with just the slightest hint of wisdom. In Schwarzenegger’s case his answers— which were not absent of charm— were entirely focused and goal-oriented.. Reading them now, with some sense of irony, you get the feeling that there was not a single thing that the man expressed that did not have a specifically self-interested goal.
Back in 1970, before body building was recognized as creepy and as morphically pathological as anorexia, Schwarzenegger was essentially the Alpha male of the planet. What he accomplished was almost completely due to an obdurate, indestructible will. He worked harder than anybody else and had a mental strength that would put a lightweight like Tiger Woods to shame.
He made a kind of God of himself, and upon each accomplishment he would heap on another, yet more unlikely one. He became a massive movie star, in spite of his inability to act or convey anything but an Austro-Germanic aggression, and then he married a Kennedy and became a two-term Governor of California, all the while amassing a staggering fortune. (Remember, before the Birthers got going, there were discussions of changing the laws so that a guy like Arnold, by which they meant Arnold, who was not born on US soil, could run for President.)
For Schwarzenegger, always goal-oriented and moving forward, as inexorable as The Terminator that defined him in Hollywood, there were no boundaries. He could do anything, and so he did. Like Frankenstein’s Monster— all Id and no Ego— he satiated every reptile impulse that occurred to him, lurching unbridled across the landscape as a testament to the glory of the self. Back in 1991, 20 years before the scandal that ruined him, an article in Premiere Magazine clearly articulated the sexually uninhibited, predatory nature of the beast.
Essentially, he ran around sexually assaulting women. Like a massive child with a hugely swollen member, he put his hands on anything that stirred his curiosity or cruelty.
Schwarzenegger was the physical and philosophical embodiment of power, and he behaved like an emperor who passed gloriously through the mortal realm. He could do whatever he wanted, be it sexual or otherwise, to whomever he wanted, and because he was powerful, politically charismatic and economically important to Hollywood, he was protected.
Oprah and Arnie, both unlikely celebrities from challenging backgrounds, are flip sides of the same coin. Oprah, our better angel, actually appeared to be trying to do good in the world, donating over 50 million dollars to various causes, while Schwarzenegger, who always seemed a senseless expression of vanity and ambition, was a substitute for Icarus, focused merely on ascending as high as his wings would take him.
Although Schwarzenegger has declared that he’s stepping out of the public realm of entertainment, it’s clear to me that he will be back. He simply cannot stop himself, and it’s my hope that he returns as our new daytime lifestyle guru, a kind of coach, stepping into the Oprah slot at 4:00 each day.
For harder, leaner times, Arnie: The Will To Power, will teach America how to master themselves—through fitness, Republican politics and discipline—and become the successes they always dreamed they should become. And from the fluttering angel wings of the departing Oprah, we will be left with the redemptive hammer and anvil of Arnie, pounding and pounding, trying fiercely to convince us that might makes right.