MONTECITO, Calif.—Helicopters carrying camera crews buzzed overhead, and tinted glass covered the windows of almost every vehicle entering as Oprah Winfrey welcomed 1,500 guests Saturday evening to her sprawling estate in what was the biggest fundraiser of Sen. Barack Obama's political career.
Obama bumped elbows with comedians Chris Rock and Whoopi Goldberg. Singer Stevie Wonder an Obama favorite, performed.But it was the joint appearance by Obama and Winfrey, who never before has involved herself in politics in such a large way, that generated the greatest star power of the evening.
The star-studded gathering marked the most visible effort yet for the billionaire media magnate in her effort to help the Illinois Democrat in his quest to win his party's presidential nomination.
As Winfrey introduced Obama's wife, Michelle, who was wearing a dress by Chicago designer Maria Pinto, the hostess called her the "first lady."
At times, Winfrey echoed Obama's stump speech. "How many hours you have spent in the halls of Washington is not the issue," she said, according to the source. "I want a man that has good sense."
Winfrey said she never expected to be involved in a presidential campaign. "When you have been called, no one can stand in the way of destiny," she reportedly said.
Once inside, guests, who dined on mini-hamburgers, chicken tenders and corn on the cob, had various levels of access, ranging from seats in the grass on lime-green blankets that had "Obama '08" embroidered on them, to a VIP reception, to a later, much more exclusive dinner.
Smartly timed with Monday's season premiere of Winfrey's show, the event was part fundraiser, part Hollywood red carpet and part circus. Photographers hovered outside entrances of Winfrey's 42-acre property, where VIP guests were allowed to drive right in. Others had to park and ride from a horse-show grounds in nearby Santa Barbara. Journalists were kept outside.
At the grounds, guests parked, had their possessions searched and boarded buses for the trip to Winfrey's property about 8 miles away. Recording devices and cameras were not allowed, and government-issued photo IDs were compared to a guest list.
The power of Oprah
In an interview Friday, Obama said he first fully realized Winfrey's power one day when he was running late for work at the Capitol and a beefy security guard in dark sunglasses stopped his car and peered in sternly to ask for identification.
Suddenly, though, the Senate ID wasn't necessary for the freshman lawmaker. "Hey, you were on 'Oprah'!" the man said, stepping back to direct Obama's car through the checkpoint with a friendly wave.
"It's at that point that I realized the power of Oprah Winfrey," Obama recalled. "Her reach extended beyond the stereotypical demographic. ... And the appearance on her show amplified my profile around the country."
At that time, Obama was several months past the 2004 Democratic National Convention speech that had made him a political star, and his first published memoir was selling well.
But an appearance on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" had widened his path into the world of pop culture, a critical domain as he began to build his celebrity-infused political portfolio. The relationship has grown along with Obama's rise, as the two Chicago celebrities have turned a passing acquaintance into a powerful friendship with national implications.
Saturday's gathering was expected to raise more than $3 million. And it may be only the beginning of her support, with television ads featuring Winfrey and even speaking appearances possible.
It is not a simple prospect for any star, especially for one who so jealously guards her brand identity. In joining Obama's campaign, Winfrey is flouting the lessons of celebrities who have closely associated themselves with candidates, only to turn off a certain segment of their audiences and diminish their own marketability.
She's also testing the boundaries of her power. Winfrey has turned obscure writers into best sellers and started a top magazine from scratch, yet she never before has tried so tangibly to translate her influence into the political realm.