The purpose was Barack Obama, but the lure, surely, was Oprah Winfrey and her estate.
On Saturday, one of those picture-perfect days that has helped make Montecito one of California’s most exclusive coastal communities, some 1,500 donors trekked to the sprawling grounds of Winfrey’s property, eager as much to marvel at the tranquil atmosphere of the place that she called the Promised Land as they were to listen to the candidate and his message.
Guests — including a showbiz contingent of Forest Whitaker, Sidney Poitier, Tyler Perry, Cicely Tyson, Louis Gossett Jr., Chris Rock and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds — paid $2,300 each to attend.
They were told to wear garden attire, but they resisted any temptation at California informality. Men wore sport coats and slacks and women wore colorful dresses, some in wide-brimmed hats and one with a pink umbrella. Security was tight: Each guest had to go through metal detectors at a special check-in center some eight miles away before being shuttled to Winfrey’s 42-acre home.
The event was still about politics, and Winfrey was particular about noting that this was the first time she has endorsed a presidential candidate, much less opened her home for a political fund-raiser.
“I haven’t been actively engaged in politics because there hasn’t been anything to engage me,” Winfrey said from a stage before the guests who gathered in a backyard meadow. “But I am engaged now to make Barack Obama the next president of the United States.”
She talked of Obama in glowing terms, telling the crowd, “Nobody can stand in the way of destiny.”
The guests were a mix of donors from across the U.S. They flew in from places like Chicago, Cleveland, Denver and New Orleans. Those in the entertainment biz who attended were Rodney Peete, Holly Robinson Peete, Cindy Crawford, Hill Harper, Dennis Haysbert, Master P, James Lassiter, Paris Barclay and Linda Evans.
Stevie Wonder, in a gold-yellow suit, provided a mini-concert. VIP donors attended a pre-event reception and a post-event private dinner with Obama and his wife, Michelle; Winfrey and her partner, Stedman Graham.
The affair ran late into the evening, when Harper, a classmate of Obama’s at Harvard Law School, co-hosted a party at the Montecito home of Susan and Pat Smith, with guests including young industry professionals who make up the Los Angeles Obama campaign group 008 the Movement.
Winfrey’s event was expected to bring in more than $3 million to the Obama campaign. But more than the money, many in the campaign view her endorsement as key to drawing women to Obama’s candidacy, in particular those who may have not been politically engaged before.
The question is whether her nod can translate viewers into votes. In a recent CBS News poll, 31% of registered voters said most people they know would be more likely to vote for Obama because of her endorsement. Most, 63%, said it would make no difference.
And it’s still uncertain just how active a role Winfrey will take in Obama’s campaign, beyond raising money, whether in 30-second spots or even on the trail at rallies. She still sounded cautious of the risks of stepping into the political fray.
“She talked about how she has never heard the call before,” said Jamie Denenberg of Overture Films, who has been volunteering for the Obama campaign. “She decided she was going to jump into the mix and take any criticism and comments the media was going to hurl at her and decided that this was the right thing to do.”
Denenberg said she found Winfrey’s comments “very heartfelt and passionate.” Also at the Winfrey event was Sue Steinberg of Santa Monica, who described a friendly crowd willing to mix and engage in political discussions. She said Obama’s inspirational message really resonated. “His message is truly one of hope, that he really believes in hope,” she said.
Getting on stage shortly before 6 p.m., Obama said, nonchalantly, “This party is OK. … It’s nice.” The crowd laughed, well aware of the build-up to the event.
He evoked many of the themes he cited earlier in the day at Santa Barbara City College, where he spoke to some 6,000 people against the backdrop of the city’s coastline.
Among other things, he vowed to get health insurance for all Americans by the end of his first term and called for early childhood education and an increase in the minimum wage. He also talked of restoring the country’s image in the world, with some of his biggest applause coming when he said that as president he would speak to the United Nations and declare, “America is back.”
“We’re going to have to talk to countries we don’t like,” he said in one of the few references to his chief rival for the nomination, Hillary Clinton. He didn’t mention her by name, but he was talking about her criticism of him as “naive” for saying that he would meet with leaders from enemy countries.
Some said Obama’s speech was too long at about a half-hour, and others had heard it before on the stump.
Event was billed as a “celebration,” with guests spread across the lawn on specially designed, green-and-white Obama for President towels and others in covered seating areas.
There was a frenzy in Santa Barbara starting with the check-in area at the Earl Warren Fairgrounds. An accident on the 101 Freeway only added to a momentary traffic tie-up, with some frustrated guests parking on their own and simply walking to a series of security checkpoints.
By the time the buses dropped them off at Winfrey’s side entrance, on a street closed to traffic and patrolled by four sheriff’s deputies, they appeared relaxed and eager to enter. Each group waited at a wooden gate, done up in green wreaths and garlands, as a brass band played an eclectic mix of music including Sousa and the theme from “The Love Boat.” Finally, the doors swung open and they entered the grounds, shaded by cypress trees and serenaded by female mariachi singers. One woman stepped onto the property, closed her eyes, opened them again and said, “I’m here.”
Afterward, some guests, while noting a classy atmosphere overall, said they were less than impressed with the food selection: corn on the cob, mini hamburgers, chicken tenders. Because of campaign finance laws, the campaign, and not Winfrey, has to pick up the tab for much of the event, so costs did have to be controlled. For Oprah, that’s the new, stark reality of politics, even in the Promised Land.