Oprah Winfrey welcomed Barack Obama to the sprawling grounds of her Montecito estate on Saturday, to a crowd of celebrity well-wishers and other politicos drawn almost as much to her star power as they were to the candidate himself.
With donors gathered on a meadow next to a beautiful lake, Winfrey introduced Obama as “the man who will be the president of the United States,” and even described his candidacy in terms of destiny.
“Nobody can stand in the way of destiny,” Winfrey said. “I believe this is a destiny thing going on.”
Among those who attended the $2,300 fund-raiser, billed as a garden party “celebration,” were Forest Whitaker, Tyler Perry, Sidney Poitier, Cicely Tyson, Chris Rock, Rodney Peete, Holly Robinson Peete, Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, Cindy Crawford, James Lassiter, Dave Winfield, Linda Evans, Dennis Haysbert, Hill Harper, Damon Lindelof, Master P, Nia Long, Lou Gossett and Stevie Wonder.
Wonder, in a gold-yellow suit, provided a musical performance, along with Bebe Winans.
Much was made of the fact that this was the first time that Winfrey had endorsed a presidential candidate. She explained to the crowd that Obama was unique. “I haven’t been actively engaged in politics because there hasn’t been anything to engage me. But I am engaged now to make Barack Obama the next president of the United States.””
But she decided to step out and endorse Obama because, as she said, “the moment is now.”
Citing his message of unifying the country, she said, “Barack Obama understands that in order to have a great America diversity is necessary…I believe in him. I trust him.”
Obama spoke for about 20 minutes, evoking many of the themes of a speech earlier in the day before some 6,000 people on the campus of Santa Barbara City College.
Donors were shuttled in buses from the Earl Warren Fairgrounds in Santa Barbara, some eight miles away, where a crush of vehicles caused a traffic jam and frustrated some of those trying to go into the event. Some got out of their expensive cars and just walked to a specially designed security area, where they went through metal detectors before boarding the coach buses.
But by the time they arrived at Winfrey’s gates, the well-dressed crowd appeared relaxed and anxious to get into the property. As buses dropped each group off, they waited at a wooden gate, listening to a brass band play and eclectic mix of music including Sousa and even “The Love Boat” theme, before the doors swung open and they entered an area covered in Cypress trees. Green wreaths and garlands decorated the front entrance, for what was called a garden party, with men in sport coats and slacks and women in colorful dresses and some with straw hats.
Those inside described her property as an unusually serene environment — it includes a man-made lake and fountains in a symmetry that reminds one of the National Mall. She calls it “the Promised Land.”
When Obama finally got on stage shortly before 6 p.m., he said, nonchalantly, “This party is OK… It’s nice.”
He reserved special thanks and praise for Winfrey, citing her work on an array of humanitarian projects. He also noted that it has been suggested that she run for president, although he quipped that she “would have less power, less influence.”
Obama vowed to insure all Americans by the end of his first term, and relayed the story of his mother, suffering from ovarian cancer, having to endure an endless amount of paperwork and bureaucracy from her insurer. He also called for early childhood education and for an increase in the minimum wage.
His biggest applause came when he talked about foreign policy and his desire, as president, to speak to the United Nations and tell them that “America is back.” He talked of restoring the country’s image in the world.
“We’re going to have to talk to countries we don’t like,” he said. Earlier in the day, he had said, “I had a little argument with my Democratic colleagues over this issue.” It was the closest he came to referring to Hillary Clinton. At a debate in July, when Obama said he would meet with some of the U.S.’s enemies, Clinton called the comment “naive.”
The event was expected to raise more than $3 million, a boon to Obama’s campaign coffers as it is in a breakneck race with Clinton’s campaign to lock up donors and endorsements in advance of the primary.
Although Winfrey’s event drew plenty of media attention, it is still in question whether she will take an even more public stand for Obama, by shooting 30-second ads or even stumping on the campaign trail. Her event was closed to the press, although members of the media camped outside her gates to hear what was being said.
Most of the guests did not go into Winfrey’s home. Instead, they found spots in her meadow on specially designed white and lime green towels with the campaign logo. Guests ate corn on the cob and chiken tenders. Volunteers wore T-shirts featuring blades of grass interspersed with the Obama logo — signifying her garden party.
Major fund-raisers attended a more intimate reception with Winfrey and Obama, and the two also attended a private VIP dinner in her home afterward.
CBS News did a recent poll showing that 31% believe that Winfrey’s endorsement will make a difference, but 63% doubt that it will be a factor.
Instructions to the event clearly stated that guests should wear comfortable shoes, given that it was taking place on Winfrey’s expansive back lawn. But some women didn’t listen, and they wore stiletto heels — and sunk in the lawn as they wandered through the party. Guests were forbidden from bringing in cameras and recording devices.
In an interview Friday with the Chicago Tribune, “Obama said he first fully realized Winfrey’s power one day when he was running late for work at the U.S. Capitol and a beefy security guard in dark sunglasses stopped his car and peered in sternly to ask for identification.
“Suddenly, though, the Senate ID wasn’t necessary for the freshman lawmaker. “Hey, you were on ‘Oprah’!” the man said, stepping back to direct Obama’s car through the checkpoint with a friendly wave.
“It’s at that point that I realized the power of Oprah Winfrey,” Obama recalled. “Her reach extended beyond the stereotypical demographic. … And the appearance on her show amplified my profile around the country.”
Photo: Michelle and Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey at garden party. From AP wire services.