The Oprah Winfrey who fired up the crowd at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion on Sunday was different from the Oprah who made her political debut endorsing Barack Obama in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina in December. In her first steps on the campaign trail Oprah was surprisingly tentative, almost shy. But today's Oprah, like Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire, had found her voice. She was far more like the woman we see on television every day: sharp, funny, opinionated, but fed up with women who tell her she's a "traitor" for endorsing Obama over Clinton.
"After Iowa, there were some women who had the nerve to say to me, 'How could you, Oprah, how could you?'" The talk show star mimicked her critics, affecting a pinched nasal accent. "'You're a traitor to your gender.' I was both surprised by that comment and insulted.
"The truth is, I'm a free woman," Winfrey told a rapt crowd." She repeated "I'm a free woman" three more times. "Being free means you get to think for yourself and you get to decide for yourself what to do. So I say I am not a traitor, I am just following my own truth, and that truth has led me to Barack Obama." She came back to the theme later, talking, again in a mock accent, about women who say, "'I'm a woman, I have to vote for a woman.'" She disagreed. "As free women, you have the right to change your mind. You're not a traitor because you believe and see a better way."
The rest of the time she was expansive, soulful Oprah rather than irritated Oprah, and the crowd went wild. (Unbelievably, people began to trickle out after she spoke, while Michelle Obama was giving a rousing speech.) But even the queen of daytime television was upstaged a little by the surprise appearance of California first lady Maria Shriver, whose Republican husband, Arnold Schwarzenegger, of course, endorsed John McCain last week.
Shriver told the crowd she woke up this morning and just knew she had to be at UCLA. Her 18-year-old daughter, Katherine, encouraged her. The Obama campaign confirmed the spontaneity. "She called this morning," said Obama's California communications director Debbie Mesloh, looking a little stunned. Stevie Wonder likewise decided to show up at the last minute.
A trademark multiracial Obama crowd waited in a long line in the rain outside Pauley Pavilian on Sunday (in the end the arena was only about three-quarters full). The stands were dotted with big day-glo Warhol-style Barack Obama posters, bright green, fuschia, yellow-orange backgrounds radiating color from far away. A white "Obama" sign, like the "Hollywood" lettering up in the hills, stood high in the bleachers. It was very L.A.; people did the wave as they waited for the three women leaders they'd come to see. On this Super Bowl Sunday, at an event geared to women, it was a heavily female crowd, but not exclusively. (By contrast, a packed Clinton fundraiser not geared toward women in San Francisco Friday night might have been more female than this group.)
Caroline Kennedy spoke briefly, making the remarks about Obama's inspirational candidacy and his education platform that she's made elsewhere. But for this group, even she went off-message introducing Oprah: "This is a big day for me, because I get to introduce somebody who's not my Uncle Teddy!" Oprah then introduced Michelle Obama, who came out with Stevie Wonder. She gave a speech I haven't heard before, using the couple's personal story to show how the country has closed off opportunities for working-class and struggling families.
"I don't want you to look at me and see a first lady, I want you to see what an investment in public education looks like," Obama said. She talked of her working-class parents, proud of "being able to send not one but two of their children to Princeton. They had to forgo their dreams but helped us reach for things they could only imagine." She praised Obama's single mother, Ann Dunham. "His mother was 18, an 18-year-old white woman trying to raise a black kid in the '60s. She had to be a dreamer. She was a little bit naive, sometimes they had to live on food stamps ... She had the nerve to think she could travel and study women's issues in Indonesia."
Obama also noted that like many Americans, she and her husband are "three years outside of paying down our educational debt. We got those good degrees, and we didn't have trust funds." She quickly insisted there's "nothing wrong with trust funds" and joked that she wished her husband had one. "I was a little hopeful when I heard about this relationship with Dick Cheney. I thought, maybe this is it!"
In a mostly positive speech, there were a couple of swipes at the couple she and her husband are running against, though not by name. She insisted that "through Democratic and Republican administrations, it hasn't gotten better for regular folks," which would seem to indict the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton. She also insisted the election would come down to "character," although she didn't spell out how her husband's opponent was of lesser character, and said she yearned for a day when the country would be led by "a president who was raised with values," like she and Barack Obama were.
The mixed crowd was, like all Obama crowds I've seen, heavily black and white. There was a smattering of "Latinos for Obama" signs. But unlike the packed event at a black church in Oakland on Friday, where Sen. Ted Kennedy and Rep. Barbara Lee took the stage without Latino leaders, the UCLA event featured several Latinas who were added to the program after it was announced. State Sen. Gloria Romero and Pomona Mayor Norma Torres warmed up the crowd, and L.A. labor heavyweight Maria Elena Durazo introduced Caroline Kennedy and shared the stage with her, Winfrey and Michelle Obama.
Wandering through the crowd I ran into Cesar Chavez's granddaughter, Julie Chavez Rodriguez, 29, who works for a nonprofit group trying to reduce the dropout rate. Chavez's United Farmworkers have endorsed Clinton, and his co-founder Dolores Huerta has been a backbone of her Latino support. "I think he's the best candidate for the Latino community because he's been willing to be courageous," she said, pointing to his support for both driver's licenses and college help for undocumented workers. She admits it's an uphill climb with Latinos, who in the latest Field poll favored Clinton 52-19, but said: "The Obama bug is catching in California." And then she echoed everyone else I talked to here, lamenting: "If we had more time..."