In September 2008, Oprah Winfrey was the reigning queen of daytime TV chatter. She flatly said no to any talk about then Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin gracing her set. Oprah made no effort to square having then presidential candidate Obama on her show twice with her cold shoulder of Palin, a woman who made history in her own right by being the first female GOP VP pick and who seemed like a natural for Oprah's show. And since half of her female audience didn't and don't share Oprah's politics, they liked it even less that Oprah was Obama's top TV cheerleader. But Oprah was unfazed by the rage she got from many women at ditching Palin. Her attitude was it's my show and I'll do what I want with it and I'll invite who I want on the show.
Oprah didn't need Palin to make her, her show, or ratings. Now, however, it's a different story. Though she's still the reigning queen of daytime TV talk and there are millions who wouldn't dream of ending their day without Oprah, her ratings have plunged. The estimated seven million who view her show is about half of of the number that watched it a decade ago. She's even negotiating to move her show to cable in a couple of years. That's wise; bailing from network TV while the money and her name and allure are still there. The relentless war for ratings makes Palin a hot property, and her much buzzed book, Going Rogue, is the hook for the interview.
But there's another reason that Oprah needs to pay back door homage to Palin. Though it sticks in the craw of millions of Palin loathers to admit it, she has a following, a big, and impassioned one. She has greater national political name recognition than any other Republican except McCain. She energizes and rallies conservatives, and polls say far more Americans self-identify themselves as conservatives than liberals, let alone progressives. Palin's motherly, family-values, fundamentalist pitch fascinates even those who personally disdain her. This includes much of the Palin obsessed media. Her political ineptness, naivete smacks of a bumbling political innocence that far from being a liability endears her to throngs. This has made her a hot ticket item on the media and on the lecture circuit.
GOP regulars and political pundits routinely laugh her off as a possible GOP presidential candidate in 2012. She's still a favored running joke of late night comics. But this has endeared her to many as a scorned mother non-politician, and that serves to keep her public stock and appeal high.
The irresistible mix of Palin fascination and the sensationalism attached to it draws Oprah to her. Oprah hopes this formula will help push her numbers up. Still-fresh memories that Oprah did what she'd never done before -- not only endorse a presidential candidate, but crusade for him -- makes the Palin-Oprah talk duet even more tantalizing. Oprah will meticulously observe political decorum with Palin and not mention her unshaken Obama bias. Palin's appearance is billed simply as a talk about her book. But the Oprah-Obama connect will hang heavy in the set air. That's terrific for ratings; ratings that Oprah can use. Oprah needs Palin for that.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book, How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge (Middle Passage Press) will be released in January 2010.