Over the years, dozens of celebrities and authors have been the happy beneficiaries of what Hollywood likes to call “the Oprah effect.”
Saturday, it was Barack Obama’s turn to enjoy billionaire chat diva Oprah Winfrey’s favor, as a stunning cross section of the country’s entertainment and sports elite gathered in “the meadow” of her sprawling Montecito estate to raise money for the junior Illinois senator seeking the Democrats’ presidential nomination.
Californians have contributed more to Obama’s presidential campaign than Democrats in any other state, including his own. With the support of industry heavyweights, such as David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg, Obama tapped the Golden State for $4.2 million from April through June.
All of the $2,300-a-head tickets to Saturday’s event were sold as soon as they were offered to a select group of Democratic and entertainment industry activists, which means that Obama’s campaign took in about $3 million more.
The event underscored the political power of Hollywood’s African American community. It was put together by a black woman, who parlayed her start as a local TV news anchor into a talk-show career that has made her a figure whose influence transcends racial and class lines.
The overwhelmingly African American crowd included distinguished senior figures, including basketball superstar Bill Russell and Academy Award-winning actor Sidney Poitier, and younger stars, including Holly Robinson Peete and cutting-edge comedian Chris Rock. Motown’s Stevie Wonder provided the entertainment, singing his hits from the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Inside the gates of Winfrey’s palatial seaside getaway, what some feared would be a starched, formal affair took on the air of a relaxed family reunion or, as one guest put it, “a free concert.” Winfrey’s staff had sent out memos to ticket buyers urging them to wear “garden” attire and warning women not to wear heels that would sink into the meadow.
Most of the women though, dressed for a chic cocktail party and wore heels, which many kicked off to dance on the grass. (Winfrey danced too when Wonder started to sing.)
Guests spread their complimentary green-and-white “Obama ’08" blankets on the lawn to drink, chat and listen to the music. Others lined up to have their pictures taken with Obama, his wife and Winfrey.
The hostess -- dressed in an olive blouse and long, white skirt -- seemed to enjoy the occasion as much as her guests and mingled with the crowd throughout the afternoon.
Attendees included Cindy Crawford and husband Randy Gerber, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Hill Harper, Tom Joyner, Tyler Perry, Ellen Pompeo, Cicely Tyson, Forest Whitaker, and Winfrey’s beau, Stedman Graham.
There was a sense of history being played out under skies too blue and gracious ever to let the temperature rise above 75 or a cloud to impede the view of the Santa Barbara Channel.
It was a long slog to Montecito for many attendees, who had to park their limos at a gathering point miles from Winfrey’s estate and board buses and vans for the drive back down the coast to Montecito.
The continuous midday motorcade of stars, activists, all-star athletes and entertainment executives snarled traffic up and down the coast. While Fox News asked its viewers to wonder whether “the Oprah effect can carry Obama to the White House,” Santa Barbarans were left to wonder whether she had enough juice to get her guests to her own party.
There was a decidedly more populist tone to Obama’s first appearance in town Saturday . . . or, at least, what passes for populism here.
An enthusiastic crowd began arriving about 10:30 a.m. for the Democratic hopeful’s 11:45 a.m. address at Santa Barbara City College. It was a cross-section of hip Santa Barbara -- overwhelmingly white, fashionably turned-out surfers, high-end bohemians, college students and onetime ‘60s activists.
By the time Obama arrived from an overnight stay in San Francisco, the crowd had grown to about 5,000 under one of those perfect, blue Santa Barbara skies. The temperature was impeccable, and the ocean glinted as the kind of backdrop money can’t buy -- unless, of course, you can afford beachfront property in Santa Barbara.
Obama surveyed the scene and quipped: “I can tell you, city colleges in Chicago don’t look like this. I wouldn’t get any work done here.”
Then, eyeing the crowd: “I didn’t know there were any hippies left.” That got a big laugh, as did the senator’s rejoinder: “That’s cool.”
From there, Obama moved into his standard 45-minute stump speech, ranging from denunciations of the war in Iraq to demands for an increase in the minimum wage.
The speech complete, Obama was whisked south to Montecito for a private lunch at the seaside estate of human rights activist Nancy Koppelman. There, the crush around the gated driveway included a mix of campaign aides in white shirts and board-carrying surfers bound for the adjacent steps leading down to the beach.
Not all of Montecito is Obama country, though.
San Ysidro Drive is the street that leads up from the beach where the senator lunched to Winfrey’s estate. In the boughs of one of the ancient oaks that overshadow the lane, someone had hung a Hillary Rodham Clinton banner.
By the time the stream of white Chevrolet vans and buses began ferrying guests up the hill to Winfrey’s party, the Clinton banner was down.
Santa Barbara may be genteel, but it still knows how to play politics.