David Letterman wasn't quite serious when he labeled his show last night the Television Event of the Decade, but from where I was sitting -- cozy apartment, alone -- he might well have been on to something. His guest, of course, was Oprah Winfrey, in town for the Broadway opening of the musical version of "The Color Purple," which she produced. Letterman's been trying to get Oprah on for some time -- she last graced his couch in 1989 -- and he was clearly thrilled to have finally succeeded. Over the years Letterman's seen a parade of dishy women do gonzo things on his show -- Drew Barrymore flashing, Madonna demanding that he smell her panties -- but I've never seen him turn to jelly like he did last night. The man was awestruck -- an absolute prince and perfect gentleman, giddy just to be in the great lady's presence.
If somehow you missed the thing, our description so far might sound fairly cheesy. If you're the sort who tends toward cynicism over what pops up on television, no doubt you could dismiss the Letterman-Oprah affair as a mere media spectacle, an hourlong ad designed to prop up both moguls' various commercial endeavors. The thing is, though, there wasn't the least insincerity in either one of them. Letterman's attitude was just right; man or woman, there isn't a celebrity in this country, to say nothing of our current crop of political leaders, who can command a room like Oprah can. To put it most plainly, she was magical.
For starters, there's Oprah's obvious ease with her own celebrity. She looked just fantastic -- a radiant brown dress with a purple sash, her hair wondrous and shiny. Oprah's billions are obviously built on her capacity to speak well, but her eloquence can still shock. In an e-mail conversation we had this morning, a colleague here said: "I was struck by the fact that she spoke in really grammatical sentences, which almost no talk show guest or really anyone being interviewed in any situation does."
Talk show banter is necessarily peripheral and meaningless, and certainly much of what Oprah and Dave discussed fit that bill. This was fine, because some of the talk was transcendent. Letterman brought up the number of people dying from AIDS in Africa, mentioning how little the developed world is actually doing to help save them. Oprah launched into a clear-headed analysis of the many ills that plague the continent. Then, goaded by Letterman, she described the girls school she's building in South Africa -- a remarkable project in which she'll choose girls who live in long-suffering rural areas with no access to education and attempt to transform them into the next generation of African leaders. There's something so confidently ambitious about her plan -- to transform a continent through education, for "education," she said, "is freedom" -- it renders all cynicism moot.
I'm swooning, I know. Boy, do I know. But this is the thing about Oprah. Ordinary celebrities, the best of them, can really only make you happy. Oprah makes me hopeful, silly with optimism. You look at her and marvel at what she has done, and what she still has left to do.
I can count on one hand the number of people who make me feel this way. There's Bono, sometimes. There's Bill Clinton, but that's a hope stained with regret. Once, I felt it about John McCain; some people claim to feel it now about Barack Obama. But Oprah blows them all away.