Commentators Talk More on the Oprah 'Effect'

The Political Chat continues with CBS News senior political correspondent Jeff Greenfield, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson and cultural and political commentator Rev. Marcia Dyson.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead, tithing, they're giving up a 10th. Is it really what the Bible requires or is it a practice out of its time? That's Faith Matters in just a few minutes.

But first, we're back with our weekly chat about everything politics. In the studio, we have Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson and political commentator Reverend Marcia Dyson. On the phone in New York, CBS News senior political correspondent Jeff Greenfield.

This week, Oprah announced she will be heading out to campaign for Barack Obama next week in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Jeff, you've been on Oprah, if memory serves.

GREENFIELD: Yes.

MARTIN: How do you think she'll do?

GREENFIELD: You know, let me give you a flat, confident answer: I don't know.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GREENFIELD: I think there are two things to be said about this, but everybody says and after that, we don't know. Celebrities generally don't make much of a difference in terms of moving folks. Springsteen's tour for John Kerry, Howard Stern's endorsement of Kerry, the young white male vote went overwhelmingly for Bush.

She is different. She is more than a celebrity. She is, in many ways, the most significant media figure of our time. She has a relationship with her audience that is intimate and powerful. She is a figure way beyond the normal celebrity thing. Whether that makes a difference, particularly with women voters, who you might think are split or interested in Hillary Clinton as the first president - we are going to find out. But we can't just write this off and say it's just another famous person traipsing around with a candidate.

MARTIN: But Jeff, what's it like being in the presence of the presence?

GREENFIELD: She is - it's - she is a force of nature. I realize that's a cliché, and I apologize it's early in the morning. But over the years for a whole variety of reasons, she has a level of trust from her audience to be straight with them, to be - to talk about the most difficult issues that I've ever seen. And people used to talk about Walter Cronkite, the ex-CBS anchorman, as the most trusted person in America. But uh-uh, she doesn't hold a candle to what she does. But whether this translates into a political choice is something we simply are going to have to wait and see.

MARTIN: You know, what's interesting Eugene is that Barack Obama is still trailing Hillary Clinton, among black voters - at least that's what most polls show. Some polls show something different, that they have sort of a different methodology. I know there's a poll in South Carolina earlier that showed something different, different methodology, so.

ROBINSON: Right.

MARTIN: What do you think her impact is? Is she there to get the black voters out? Is she there for women?

ROBINSON: You know, I'm going to have to go with Jeff. I don't know. I mean, the Pew Research Center actually polled in September on the question of what Oprah's backing for Obama might mean, and, you know, it's a (unintelligible) but I won't go through all the figures, but it seemed that the results seem to suggest that she would help him, and it seems to suggest that there was actually - he'd get a bigger bump among black voters, perhaps, than among women. That was a little counterintuitive to me. I would think just, you know, from an analytical standpoint that she might have a larger impact among women voters, and that's what Obama really needs. But that's what the polls show.

MARTIN: But he needs both. He needs both.

ROBINSON: Well, yeah, he could use both.

MARTIN: He needs both. Marcia, what do you think?

DYSON: I think that Oprah is magnificent, she has star power - but she need more than stardust in your eyes for this particular providential campaign happening in the primary. I'm from Chicago, I know Oprah well and have not been on her show but I've sat in the audience five times. And... But you know, when you talk about trust - Greenfield talked about having this trust - you trust her on the issues that she knows about. Oprah admittedly has no relationship with Obama, aside the fact that she likes him...

MARTIN: She's hers senator.

DYSON: ...her senator, right. But she's never been politically involved or politically active, so she's very sophomoric and you can't trust somebody who has limited knowledge on the issues that are very pertinent today, unless she's doing a whole lot of catching up right now. So you need, you know, you could trust the person - a woman about women issues or other issues on consumerism or books. But can you trust the person who don't know about politics, about a president?

MARTIN: Interesting. Gene, quickly?

ROBINSON: Well, either of that there is an interesting question. Why do people vote for one candidate? Oprah said she supports Obama because of his moral authority. And I wonder if other people don't vote for presidential candidates because of a sense of moral authority, a sense of whom they are and what they stand for. So, you know, it may not be that important what Oprah's position is on comprehensive health care and whose package is better. It may be more important that she thinks he is a morally important figure.

MARTIN: One of the things I felt was also interesting is how the punditry reacts to this, and I heard a lot of conversation about beyond race that they're both characters, they're beyond race. And that's always fascinating to me because my email goes crazy when the pundit class goes it talks about what's African-American's saying? What the hell does that mean? What does that mean, you know? Why do you have to be beyond race just to sort of run. But I want to move on to this question of - it's almost like you're damned that if you do and damned if you don't. If you talk about race, you're wrong, if you don't talk about race, you're wrong.

And here's another person who's kind of damned that if you do, damned if you don't: Don Imus. He's back on the airwaves on Monday. Everybody remembers the circumstances, we don't have to go into it. The interesting thing is, lots of these candidates have been on that show in the past, and my question is - do they go back on? Jeff, you're - you've been on that show, too. Do these politicians go back on? And if so, what are the consequences?

GREENFIELD: Yeah. I think I was his third non-wacky guest about 17 years ago. And I've said, you know what, if he asked me I will go on again. It's - I don't want to go into the, you know, all of that unless you want to. He said an incredibly stupid moronic thing. He paid for it. He ain't no racist. And the fact that his show may actually wind up being a genuine equal opportunity defender, which it wasn't before, is encouraging. My guess is that the only - that the Democrats by and large will not go on his show. I think Hillary's already said she wouldn't, given what he said about her, I wouldn't be surprised.

MARTIN: But she was never on the show before.

GREENFIELD: That's right.

MARTIN: But Barack Obama was, Bill Richardson was, John McCain certainly was, Chris Dodd certainly was.

GREENFIELD: Right.

MARTIN: Gene Robinson, what does it - Jeff, you want(ph)?

GREENFIELD: The one guy who might go on and I think the Republicans Huckabee and McCain will definitely go on. I don't know about Giuliani.

MARTIN: I just want to - we only have 30 seconds left, Gene, I'm sorry for that. But it all - I just wonder what, how that plays to minority audiences - whether people agree or disagree that he's a racist, I don't know what's in the man's heart. It's a question of how he is perceived and how people feel about it. You tell me.

ROBINSON: Well, I think that's a reason that the leading Democratic candidates, you know, won't go on. Obama won't go on again, I'm sure and I doubt the other Democrats will.

MARTIN: But my question is when the Republicans do, how does that play with audiences - well, somebody like Mike Huckabee who's on the cusp of a breakout.

ROBINSON: It - right.

MARTIN: And who did appeal to African-American voters in Arkansas. How does that play? Very quickly.

ROBINSON: Well, I would have - If I were advising Huckabee, I'd say don't go on. I think it could hurt him. And, but I think Huckabee, you know, he's a minister, he, you know, he, because of the kind of tone of the Imus show, it might not be his thing. He might be able to say that as an excuse for begging off.

MARTIN: No, I think a lot of people will be listening. It will be interesting to see well how the show changes or if it does change. Thank you all so much.

Eugene Robinson with the Washington Post, the Reverend Marcia Dyson, political commentator, they were here with me in the studio. Jeff Greenfield, with CBS News, he was with us from New York. Thank you all so much for joining me.

DYSON: Thanks for having me.

GREENFIELD: Thank you, Michel.

ROBINSON: It was great to be here, Michel.

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