Oprah and the Icons: the Ethics of Lying to Make a Difference

Kitty Kelley’s unauthorized, rip-the-mask-off-the-icon bio is out, and now Oprah Winfrey must weather the inevitable de-construction of some of her meticulously self-created image. Oprah is pretty much untouchable now; I was a guest at her “O” Magazine Expo last Fall in Kansas City, and it was clear that her status with he legion of followers is somewhere between a guru and a goddess. There aren’t many revelations, short of proving that she is secretly Dick Cheney in an elaborate disguise, that could do much to reduce her cultural influence or undo her popularity.

Still, it used to be that heroes, celebrities and cultural icons could count on the whole truth about their personal and career embellishments to surface only late in life, or more often, long after death. Thus it has been a standard tool of rising figures in America to carefully craft an inspiring story and an appealing persona that excite and engage the public, and the truth has had little to do with it. It’s worked, too. Davy Crockett, the first bona fide U.S. celebrity, nearly rode his largely fanciful, ghost-written autobiography to the White House. William Henry Harrison, an obscure war hero, did get to the White House on the strength of a campaign emphasizing his humble log cabin origins, which were thoroughly fabricated.  One hundred and twenty years later, the method still worked: Sen. John Fitzgerald Kennedy got himself elected President with the help of a Pulitzer prize for an inspiring book, “Profiles in Courage,” that he didn’t write, and built his image using a storybook marriage that was a sham, claims of special abilities, like astounding speed-reading, that he didn’t possess, and concealing a reliance on drugs that could only be called frightening. By the time all of these were public knowledge, J.F,K was already enshrined in American Valhalla. The facts didn’t matter.

It isn’t only politicians that have fabricated their images to make a difference. UNICEF was built with great assistance from the entertainer Danny Kaye, whose image was carefully sculpted and guarded by his publicist, Robert McElwaine, to be that of a gentle, brilliant, lover of children and selfless humanitarian. The real Danny Kaye was bitter, mean, and quite possibly sociopathic, but the truth wouldn’t have raised money for sick children in Third World nations, nor would it have helped Kaye’s career. John Wayne, still the popular embodiment of the rugged American hero, was very different from the man he let the world see, who talked in a made-up accent and walked with a choreographed swagger. The real John Wayne was a chess-playing, book-reading U.S.C grad who avoided combat in World War II and preferred to lounge in slacks and a blazer rather than jeans and boots.

All of these iconic figures and many more made a positive impact on this country and its culture, not in spite of their lies, cover-ups and exaggerations, but because of them. Oprah is clearly in this special club, but because she is a member who has to cope with modern information technology and decreasing privacy, her cover is being blown mid-career. Should we care?

Oprah, the Duke, Danny Kaye, and Kennedy falsified their resumes, in effect. In business, this gets you fired. In law, it gets you disbarred. In the icon business, it may put you in a position to do immense good because of your talent, drive, brains and charisma. Can that justify the lies? Looking at it in retrospect and focusing only on the most accomplished members of the club, it would be hard to say no. If Oprah would have never become Oprah without carefully manipulating accounts of her childhood and upbringing, staging her relationships and hiding the more unattractive aspects of her personality, the culture would be poorer, millions of women might never have been inspired, books wouldn’t have been purchased or read, important ideas might never have sparked and changed how we think about relationships, failure, and other matters. The creation of a positive cultural force is a strong utilitarian argument for dishonesty in moderation—but only if the creator of the lies actually delivers. The same kinds of lies, as we know, can also create scam artists, dictators, demagogues and frauds. Their existence, and the harm they do, have to be part of the balancing equation as well. Manufactured personal histories created Adolf Hitler and Huey Long; falsified images created Tiger Woods. At the time of the misrepresentations, we don’t know who or what we’re being fooled into admiring.

It is clear that Oprah Winfrey believes these means are justified by the ends. In 2006, she championed James Frey’s supposed autobiography, A Thousand Little Pieces, as an inspiring personal story for all. Later it was revealed that Frey’s story was almost entirely fiction; in fact, he had first pedaled the book as a novel. When the fraud—for that’s what it was—was being discussed on the Larry King Show, Oprah called in to defend Frey, saying,

“Although some of the facts have been questioned, the underlying message of redemption in James Frey’s memoir still resonates with me, and I know it resonates with millions of other people who have read this book and who will continue to read this book. To those who got hope from the book, I say, keep holding on.”

This, I believe, is what Oprah really believes, because it is how she has built her own  career. The important thing, she believes, is changing people’s lives and doing good. Truth? It’s secondary.

In the Frey episode, Oprah realized that she had undermined her own credibility (and thus her ability to accomplish good things), and subsequently ambushed Frey on her show and condemned him. Then, years afterwards, Oprah privately contacted Frey and apologized. She knows, even though she can’t admit, that what Frey did was similar to what Oprah has been doing her whole career.

In John Ford’s valedictory to the Old West of myth, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, an honored old Senator  (played by James Stewart) reveals that his whole career has been built on a lie, that he heroically shot a bully and killer named Liberty Valance, when in fact the outlaw had been killed by the Senator’s rival, John Wayne (of course). The newspaper editor, hearing the story, tears up his notes.

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” he says.

We don’t print the legend any more, at least not when the truth becomes known. I suppose that is for the best, and yet legends have uses too. Legends and myths do inspire, and they gave us the Duke, JFK, and Oprah, to mention three of many. Perhaps if you do enough good with the well-placed legend, it makes up for it being a lie.

Perhaps.

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