How two of America’s most powerful women grew to despise each other
- Last Updated: 2:47 PM, May 13, 2012
- Posted: 11:13 PM, May 12, 2012
OPRAH had tried to ignore the ominous change in tone coming from the Obama transition team. As Barack Obama’s inauguration drew near, Oprah’s calls to Michelle went unreturned.
Instead, Oprah heard from Max Doebler, the newly appointed White House ceremonies coordinator, who told Oprah that she needed to talk to him first about the interview. What’s more, Doebler said, Oprah had to run her interview questions past Jeff Stephens, a deputy speech writer, for prior approval.
“It was a pain as far as Oprah was concerned,” said a high-ranking executive of Harpo Studios, Oprah’s production company. “Oprah isn’t a snob, but she doesn’t like having to put up with mid-level clerks. These guys were $75,000-a-year men. Oprah was like, ‘Hello, what is this s--t!’
“But she did it; she went to Washington with Gayle and met with both Doebler and Stephens to hash out the details. I was surprised that she went there, hat in hand.”
It soon became apparent that something had gone wrong between Oprah and the new administration — or, more precisely, between Oprah and Michelle Obama.
The problem seemed to originate from two of Michelle’s advisers, Valerie Jarrett and Desirée Rogers, the new White House social secretary. They resented Oprah’s meddling in their bailiwick. Among other things, Oprah had a plan to redecorate the Lincoln bedroom. She also had ideas about how Michelle could put more zing into White House social events.
As the person who controlled access to the first couple, Valerie Jarrett saw Oprah as a potential threat to her power. If Oprah went unchecked, she would bypass Valerie and go directly to the president and first lady. What good was it being the gatekeeper if you couldn’t lock the gate when you wanted? And so Valerie set about turning Michelle against Oprah. Oprah was too close to the president . . . Oprah was acting like she was the first lady . . . Oprah didn’t know her place . . . Oprah was a bad influence . . . Valerie advised Michelle to “distance herself” from Oprah and cut her out of the White House inner circle.
IT didn’t take much to convince Michelle. As Michelle knew only too well, her husband had a compelling need to win the approval of strong women like Oprah. He seemed to be in awe of the talk-show host, sometimes giving her advice priority over Michelle’s. For instance, Oprah thought that Obama was overexposing himself on television and told him to pull back. Though Michelle disagreed, Obama listened to Oprah and restricted his TV appearances. As far as Michelle was concerned, Oprah’s billions and her elite lifestyle disqualified her as an adviser to Barack, who had no truck with wealthy people, except as a source of campaign contributions, and was a redistributionist at heart.