In a country that elected a uniquely unqualified man to the presidency in 2016, it’s no longer rational to dismiss a presidential candidate simply for lack of experience.
Lack of money, yes. But lack of political experience? Give me a break.
And yet, when Marianne Williamson — bestselling author, self-help guru, AIDs activist and friend of Oprah — tweeted Monday that she was about to launch a campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, the replies on her feed ranged from mildly negative to brutal.
“Why wouldn’t you run for local/state government first? Why is everyone jumping straight to president these days?” one tweeter asked.
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“So all the bored rich people of the US now believe that ‘Playing President' is just like buying a membership at an elite country club, clearly! YOU ARE NOT QUALIFIED,” another said.
Oh qualified, schmalified. As Williamson points out, the Constitution says you have to be 35 and a natural-born citizen to run for president. That’s it.
Anyway, she is not a political novice. In 2014, she ran for Congress, raised $2 million and placed fourth in a field of 16.
In 2010, she created Sister Giant, an annual conference to engage more women in politics, both as candidates and activists.
There were other negative reactions, too. Some accused Williamson of trying to raise her profile to sell more books.
But her profile is already pretty damn high.
She has 2.6 million Twitter followers — more than U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand, both of whom are running for the Democratic nomination.
She has written 12 books, seven of them New York Times bestsellers. Her breakout 1992 bestseller, “A Return to Love,” incorporated the teachings of “A Course in Miracles,” a popular spiritual self-help movement about the transformative power of love and forgiveness.
Williamson is also a veteran social activist who founded Project Angel Food, which for nearly 30 years has delivered meals to home-bound people with AIDs.
As someone who has covered presidential campaigns since 2004, I can tell you that voters will give a listen to almost any candidate with a resonant message.
After all, in the 2012 presidential race, Republicans took businessman Herman Cain seriously. In 2011, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann won the Ames Straw Poll.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, whose campaign focused on poverty and racial justice, did well enough in the 2004 Democratic primaries to debate with Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards.
And of course, Ross Perot had never run for anything and still managed to garner 18.9 percent of the popular vote as an independent in 1992.
At the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills last week, Williamson, 66, stood at a clear podium in front of a massive, “Patton”-esque American flag. She wore a short, fitted black jacket and a long black skirt, a severe look for such a celebratory moment.
The theater held hundreds of supporters and fans of her self-help ministry. Her 35 years of experience as a public speaker, teacher and pastor will serve her well if her candidacy goes anywhere. She is a charismatic orator, funny and erudite and passionate. She spoke for 40 minutes without notes or a teleprompter.
She spoke about her life — about her father, a successful immigration attorney, who taught her not just to look but to see — her anti-Vietnam War activism, her work as a “metaphysician,” someone who teaches spiritual lessons.
She quoted Louis Brandeis, Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi. She spoke about the importance of investing in children, the scandal of child poverty in America. When she advocated reparations for slavery, her supporters, who were mostly white, erupted in applause. “There is a still a debt to be paid,” she said.
Her message seems perfectly in tune with the Democratic Party’s left wing. She is a progressive populist and does not object to being compared to Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
“Previously, our social agreement was such that we expected corporations to have a sense of ethical responsibility to workers, their community, the environment,” she told me during a phone conversation on Monday afternoon. “But market forces-above-all, no matter who gets hurt, has replaced democracy as our organizing principle.”
Because she speaks of the importance of love and compassion, about morality and spirituality, she may seem to some to be a walking, talking California stereotype.
“She’s blending woo woo with politics, my two favorite things,” said Jeanne Mahaffey, 39, a receptionist for a real estate firm who came to hear Williamson speak. “She is talking about the stuff that no one ever talks about in a realistic, mature manner. Like reparations, taxes, the environment. It’s not just pretty words that protect the feelings of the powerful.”
But what about that “woo woo” thing?
“She is soft and love-centered, and that comes across to some people as weak,” Mahaffey said. “But in a world full of Proud Boys (the far-right western chauvinist men’s group) and John Wayne swagger, I think that’s brave.”
Williamson herself rejects any notion that she’s some kind of spiritual goofball.
“I’m a serious woman,” she said. “I’ve had a serious career.”
As she has pointed out in the past, Martin Luther King Jr. “wasn’t called a New Age nutcase or considered an intellectual lightweight” for emphasizing the power of love.
But love, as all presidential candidates know, is not all you need.
“I’d like $2 million tonight, please,” she told the crowd.
I sat next to a man who looked as if he might have been at home in a Wall Street boardroom. He told me he was a Republican investment banker from New York and a friend of Williamson. He planned to donate his allowed maximum of $2,700 that evening.
He wouldn’t tell me whether he thought she could win the nomination.
“She brings a marvelous dimension to the conversation,” he said. “The American public needs this.”