A recent column by Joseph Epstein in the Wall Street Journal about the prospect of Oprah Winfrey running for president was titled, “The Perfect Candidate for Therapist in Chief.” The title says it all. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, in Winfrey’s history that qualifies her in any conventional sense to be president of the United States. Rather she has been, first on her long-running eponymous television show and then beyond, a first-class listener, a fabled survivor, and an iconic earth mother. What she has not been, even for a single day, is enlisted in the American military or embroiled in American politics.
On the one hand no surprise. Neither George W. Bush or Barack Obama brought to the White House extensive political education or training. And Donald Trump famously, infamously, had exactly zero directly relevant experience and exactly zero directly relevant expertise. In other words, the American presidency has already been sullied. We have already assumed that leadership, even, or, especially, presidential leadership, is something that can be exercised without much or even any leadership learning at all. So why not Oprah?
Winfrey for president says far less about her than it does about us. About how we the American people have got to the point of thinking of leadership as akin to a hobby, as something that can and perhaps even should be exercised without any previous practice whatsoever. It’s an astonishingly low bar we’ve set, partly because we’ve set it primarily for leadership in politics, not for leadership in business, not for leadership in the military, and not for leadership anyplace else. Mary Barra, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of General Motors, is 56 years old. Not only did she start working at the company at age 18, it’s well known that her father was a dye maker at GM for almost 40 years. One of the reasons then that this woman got this job – a first in the auto industry – was that GM coursed through her veins. The company was in her blood.
Makes sense. What does not make sense is that America’s chief executive is conceived of as radically different from GM’s chief executive. What’s required for the second – experience and expertise – should be required also for the first.