The Church of O
On September 23, thousands of people filed into New York City's Yankee Stadium, waving American flags and clutching photos of missing loved ones presumed dead 12 days after the terrorist attacks. The hope had faded for finding survivors at Ground Zero, the 2 million-ton pile of debris in lower Manhattan, and the victims' families and friends gathered together at this interfaith prayer service to mourn.
The program featured a hastily assembled jumble of Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, and Hindu clergy and musical performers like Bette Midler and the Harlem Boys & Girls Choir. The service was profoundly religious yet utterly pluralistic, and in Mayor Rudy Giuliani's mind there was really only one national personality who could serve as its host: her low, distinctive voice both comforted and inspired the bereaved.
"When you lose a loved one, you gain an angel whose name you know," said Oprah Winfrey. "Over 6,000, and counting, angels added to the spiritual roster these past two weeks. It is my prayer that they will keep us in their sight with a direct line to our hearts." After reminding mourners that "hope lives, prayer lives, love lives," she offered an affirmation tinged with challenge and benediction: "May we all leave this place and not let one single life have passed in vain. May we leave this place determined to now use every moment that we yet live to turn up the volume in our own lives, to create deeper meaning, to know what really matters."
Fast forward to Chicago a few weeks later. About 300 people are seated around a small wooden platform at Harpo Studios for a taping of The Oprah Show. The audience is mostly women, generally well coifed and well dressed. Gina, a chatty producer, takes the stage and explains that today they will tape two episodes of the "Dr. Phil Get Real Challenge," in which 42 participants spend five days having their emotional hides tanned by Dr. Phil McGraw, the tough-talking psychologist and "life strategist" who has become a regular on the show.
Then it happens. The theme music rolls, the audience erupts, and she appears, gliding in on the arm of Dr. Phil, radiant in a yellow pantsuit, gorgeous hair, that hey-girl-how-you-doin' smile, that voice. In that moment, people in the audience are united in excitement; they become her shameless groupies. They will read whatever books she endorses, ponder her every word, keep gratitude journals, donate money, remember their spirits, whatever. This isn't Jerry, Ricki, or Rosie. This is Oprah!
After the show, as is her custom, Oprah entertains questions from curious audience members. What, one woman asks, is one of the most important experiences she's ever had? A common question, but Oprah obliges her and refers to the infamous 1998 trial in which a group of Texas cattlemen sued her after she expressed reluctance to eat burgers ever again during a show on mad cow disease. The cattlemen's lawyer had accused her of intentionally causing beef stock prices to fall.
She won the trial, Oprah told the audience, when she began to see it as a metaphor for life's trials. "I kept asking God, 'What is the deeper meaning of this? It can't be about burgers,'" she said. Then she received the revelation: "I became calm inside myself and I thought, The outside world is always going to be telling you one thing, have one impression—accusatory, blaming, and so forth. And you are to stand still inside yourself and know the truth, and let it set you free. And in that moment, I won that trial."