There's Still Time For Oprah to Endorse John Fetterman

It’s the least she could do

Dr. Mehmet Oz and Oprah Winfrey
Patrick McMullan/Patrick McMullan/Getty Images

In 2013, when the New Yorker published a profile of Dr. Mehmet Oz — the TV doctor who spent years scaremongering about the faux dangers of arsenic in apple juice and pushing so many pseudoscientific cures they have their own Wikipedia page — it ran under the headline “The Operator.”

The pun doesn’t need much explanation, but here’s one nevertheless: To the extent that Oz can still claim medical credentials, they are that he was trained as a cardiothoracic surgeon. He is also a shrewd manipulator who knows how to milk a publicity stunt. This has been obvious since 1996, when he assisted in a heart transplant on the brother of ex-Yankees manager Joe Torre, and then rode the news cycle into modest local celebrity that outshined even the head surgeon on the operation. The Torre transplant, his colleague told the New Yorker, “was his first big splash of publicity, and he loved it.” Oz, with the help of his wife, “Reiki master” Lisa LeMole, parlayed those 15 minutes of fame into a Discovery Channel show called Second Opinion. So one must imagine it was a similar kind of savvy that led the couple to choose their first guest: Oprah Winfrey.

Oprah, of course, had no medical experience. But she did have a massive platform. In 2003, when Second Opinion debuted, The Oprah Winfrey Show had been airing for 17 years and had racked up so many Daytime Emmys (47 in total) that she had stopped submitting it for consideration three years earlier. She also had a track record of turning guests into stars. In 1998, she gave a clinical psychologist named Phil McGraw — who had helped Oprah beat a defamation case over an episode on the beef industry — a Tuesday slot on her show. It proved so popular that, four years later, she spun it off into its own series: Dr. Phil. After appearing on Second Opinion, Oprah gave Oz the same treatment. In 2004, Oz started appearing on Oprah, eventually taking over Dr. Phil’s old Tuesday spot. She dubbed him “America’s Doctor.”

Almost two decades later, we may all soon suffer for that mistake. There is no person in the world more responsible for Oz’s immense public profile than Oprah Winfrey. After Oprah brought him on, Oz appeared on her show more than 60 times. He started his own, Oprah-produced series The Dr. Oz Show, which ran for 13 seasons, and he wrote 12 books — nearly all self-help guides titled variants on YOU: On a Diet: The Owner's Manual for Waist Management or YOU(R) Teen: Losing Weight: The Owner's Manual to Simple and Healthy Weight Management at Any Age. His net worth now hovers somewhere in the cavernous gap between $104 million and $422 million.

By extension, there is no one who has teed him up better for his Pennsylvania Senate campaign against progressive Lt. Gov. John Fetterman — a race that could determine the balance of the Senate and the future of our decreasingly functional democracy. Oz, who moved to Pennsylvania from New Jersey shortly before entering the race, has run on an overtly MAGA platform, with all the far-right, “America First” positions that entails. He has called abortion “murder” and supported the overturn of Roe v. Wade; he has downplayed the threat of climate change to bolster support for fracking and coal mining; he has criticized the Affordable Care Act and pledged to vote for its repeal if elected. He has taken a hardline stance against immigration, gun control regulation, gender-affirming care for trans people, the legalization of marijuana, and voting rights protections.

Last night, Fetterman and Oz went head-to-head in their first and only debate before the election — a debate Oz all but bullied Fetterman into accepting, as the latter continues to struggle with auditory processing since his stroke in May. As a doctor, Oz should know something about the difficulties of stroke recovery; he once appeared on Oprah as Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, who had a stroke at 37, detailed her road to recovery for the debut of her book, My Stroke of Insight. But that didn’t seem to have stopped him from smirking at Fetterman’s speech, between dodging questions about a national abortion ban.

But Oprah has stayed notably mum since Oz declared his candidacy in November of last year. A month into his campaign, Oz said he had “asked [Oprah] to stay out” of the race, at a Republican meet-and-greet hosted by billionaire grocer John Catsimatidis. Oz recalled their conversation to a crowd of right-wing personalities like Rudy Giuliani and Bo Dietl: “Don’t support me, because if you get involved in any way, you’ll get hurt and I don’t want my friends hurt.”

Oprah evidently took that directive to heart. Because a year after the fact, the talk-show host has only offered one, distinctly muted, comment on the tight and highly publicized race. Three days after Oz’s meet-and-greet, she told New York magazine:

One of the great things about our democracy is that every citizen can decide to run for public office. Mehmet Oz has made that decision. And now it’s up to the residents of Pennsylvania to decide who will represent them.

Oprah has not always maintained such strict silence about political candidates. Back in 2007, she endorsed then-candidate Barack Obama and appeared with him on the campaign trail. This proved to have made some impact. The month she endorsed him, a Pew Research poll found that “roughly a quarter of Americans (26 percent)” said that they had “heard more about Obama recently than any other presidential candidate, up from just 10 percent” the month before. It was effective enough that pollsters dubbed the bump “The Oprah Factor.” She waded into politics again in 2013, when she fundraised for Cory Booker; in 2016, when she endorsed Hillary Clinton; and during the Trump years, when she mulled a presidential run herself. And just this month, she joined Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams at a virtual campaign event.

But Oprah doesn’t seem to be interested in using her platform in this case, which is certainly her prerogative. Her representatives did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The Oprah creed, as she has said many times on her show, is to “do what you have to do, until you can do what you really want to do.” Oprah no longer has to do anything. And what she really wants to do now, apparently, is protect her friends.