Photo: Photo For The Washington Post By Mary Inhea Kang
Author Marianne Williamson has spent a good portion of her career standing in front of troubled audiences and speaking to them in tones that are soothing, admonishing and invigorating. She has written best-selling books aimed at helping people get their spiritual lives in order and part of that process includes exploring their own culpability in their predicament.
Williamson has brought a similar sense of self-examination to her presidential campaign which is, at this early stage, a massive long shot, but not quite as quixotic as those stragglers who couldn’t even meet the first debate’s qualifying standards: attract 65,000 individual donations or register 1 percent support in three polls. Williamson did both. She will not be center stage in Miami Thursday night – that spot is reserved for former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, who are leading in the polls. She may not be knee deep in legislative experience or wonky verbiage, but she can be both charismatic and intriguing on the stump. She is a palate cleanser.
Williamson is not new to campaigning. She ran for Congress in 2014 as an independent. She lost. Mostly, she is known for books such as “A Return to Love,” as an adviser to Oprah Winfrey and part of the media mogul’s Super Soul Sunday series.
Williamson stands out in a lineup with other candidates. They hand-chop the air like dark-suited lumberjacks, reflexively smile even when there is nothing in particular to smile about and pace the stage as if mileage equals substance. Williamson speaks in a husky alto with a cadence that is part meditation guide and part preacher. Her gestures are smooth elucidation, rather than a series of exclamation points. She does not plod across the stage; she alights upon it. She is not here to brag about herself; she is here to help you bring forth your best inner citizen.
Williamson is not a buttoned-up candidate. She wears blazers: a taupe one that reflects the light, a black one that is diaphanous and breezy. Her earrings shimmer and jangle.
Earlier this month, Williamson was one of nine Democratic candidates who attended a presidential forum at Trinity Washington University hosted by the Poor People’s Campaign, to discuss solutions to systemic poverty. Each candidate was onstage for 27 minutes, which included a four-minute opening statement, one question from the audience and several queries from the three onstage moderators – two of whom were ministers, with one sermonizing far more than he listened. Williamson left no significant policy imprint, but she did leave a humanistic one. In a rebuke to being referred to as an “outsider candidate,” she noted, “There’s no such thing as an outsider in this country.” God bless.
Williamson is not so naive as to mean this literally. She’s not ignoring the significant number of people who are disenfranchised, who are locked out of the political process, who go unseen by so many of their neighbors. This is, in fact, the audience she aims to address. But what makes Williamson so captivating onstage is that she talks less about why a person should vote for her and more about what the act of voting does for the inner life of the individual. Voting is self-care.
At group campaign appearances, her talks are often interrupted by cheers, while other candidates receive only polite applause as they take their bows. But first, folks go pin-drop silent as they listen to her pull from her knowledge of history and quickly detail the path the country has taken to get to these troubled times. She exudes emotional intelligence without roiling the waters in which she swims.
In Columbia, South Carolina, last week, some voters marveled at her understanding of African American history and her ability to speak eloquently to racism as the wound that will not heal. She’s not laying out a plan for every problem, and she’s not creating a safe space where we can feel better about ourselves. She is bringing the language of self-assessment to the town square – not the woo-woo, light-a-scented-candle variety, but the kind of loving punishment that might be doled out by a parent: Now I want you to sit there quietly and consider what you have done.
Like all the other candidates who were in Columbia for the state’s Democratic convention, Williamson attended the sprawling outdoor fish fry hosted by Rep. Jim Clyburn. It’s a tradition among the Democrats, this sweaty shoulder-to-shoulder herd of humanity. The public ostensibly comes for free fried fish on white bread, but the main course is the politics.
The men and women vying for the Democratic nomination each slip on a Clyburn T-shirt and await their turn onstage. The congressman introduces each candidate – mangling their names and résumés by varying degree. Each person has two minutes to deliver their why-you-should-vote-for-me spiel. Kamala Harris went on for well over three minutes. Biden spoke for only about one. Williamson came in at an earnest 2 minutes 7 seconds. What manner of politician is so respectful of the clock?
Clyburn: “Put your hands together for the woman who is writing a self-help guide on how to become president of the United States: Marianne Williamson.”
Williamson: “On our watch, a government of the people and by the people and for the people is perishing in front of our eyes. … A virulent strain of capitalism has corrupted our government and it has hijacked our moral value system. It’s time for the people to step in. We need a moral and a political and an economic revolution in this country.”
She wore her bright blue Clyburn T-shirt over a pair of wide-legged black trousers that fluttered and flowed as she dipped and swayed during her speech. Her dangling earrings flashed in the light. And even though she never shouted, one still had the sense of a crescendo – not from the volume of her voice but its urgency. She is akin to the yoga teacher counting you down from a strenuous series of asanas until you slide blissfully, gratefully into child’s pose.
The next morning, Williamson is, again, running with the political pack, onstage at a Planned Parenthood Action Fund forum. One after another, the abortion rights candidates are all essentially in agreement; the only real differences are in the articulation of their shared beliefs. Williamson sits onstage in her glamorous taupe satin blazer that is audaciously eye-catching simply because it is not a searing jewel tone or a flat neutral. Health care and abortion, she says, are about women and power, and she has issues with the tenor of the argument that Planned Parenthood is making in defense of that power. There’s an undercurrent of “pretty please” in it, Williamson says. While the other candidates are mostly focused on a list of demands, Williamson is thinking about how women are feeling when they pick up the bullhorn.
How are you feeling, America? Deep down inside? Williamson doesn’t look like the other candidates, and she doesn’t sound like them. But that’s more than OK because there are 20 people on the debate stage across two nights, and they each have a Day One to-do list and a First 100 Days to-do list and a Here Are the Reasons Why I’m Fabulous list. Williamson will surely have her lists, too. But hopefully she will do as she has done before: Wear something subtly jarring, refrain from shouting and make us all take a few deep cleansing breaths. Because America is not feeling so well.