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It's time to praise Leno, Winfrey

Time to give credit where it's due ...

Here are two people I neither watch reguarly or like but whose uncommon grace in a couple of instances ought to be noticed -- especially by those of us who'd rather not.

Jay Leno: I don't watch Leno, I watch Letterman. The only time I ever see Leno at all is when Letterman is in rerun and Leno isn't; or when Leno's top guest is so prepossessing that I'd have to be crazy to avoid it (if, hypothetically, he were interviewing Mick Jagger, say, while Letterman was stuck leading off with Kiefer Sutherland).

It isn't that Leno isn't funny, he's just not funny enough often enough for me. And there's a self-congratulatory vulgarity (think of the dancing Itos during the O.J. trial) that Letterman isn't capable of, much less reliant on.

Leno's palsy-walsy Hollywood interviews don't impress me much either. They're as much a part of the National Entertainment State as the National Enquirer, In Touch magazine and network and studio publicity departments. Letterman, though, might actually ask -- or say -- something totally off the wall. On rare occasions, he's even asked a question that I wanted to know the answer to.

But Leno's gift of a motorcycle to be auctioned off to benefit Buffalo police officer Patricia Parete, I think, passed by with far too little praise.

Yes, I know that Leno has enough vintage cars and motorcycles to fill umpteen garages. And yes I know that parting with one for a good cause isn't all that big a sacrifice for him (tax deductible, you know?).

It's not just a quick check in an envelope either.

Leno, the stand-up comic, is the real thing, the kind of guy who genuinely seems to relish playing cities all over America. He has, over the years, been in Buffalo often -- before and after late night stardom. I think there was real feeling in that proffered motorcycle, both for the cities he's played and the kind of cops who protect them. It shouldn't pass by without special praise.

Oprah Winfrey: Except as a phenomenon, the most powerful woman in America doesn't interest me. It's not a time of day I watch TV but if it were, I'd watch Ellen DeGeneres before I joined the congregation in the First Church of Oprah.

Nevertheless, her choice of Cormac McCarthy's novel "The Road" for her book club was a flabbergasting cultural event. It means that McCarthy -- one of the most reluctant interview subjects in Christendom -- agreed to be Oprahfied, i.e. interviewed on her show.

Oprah Winfrey, bless her, gets it. She always has. Whenever her book club has run into trouble -- when, for instance James Frey's "memoir" turned out to be b.s. -- she knows what to do. In Frey's case, she knew she had to come out big time and stand for truth and not swamp gas.

By choosing McCarthy, she signaled loud and clear that she knows -- knows -- that if her massively powerful book club is to have any value whatsoever, she has to find those living writers who write books that stand completely apart from the First Church of Oprah. She has to present those writers who write for literary reasons, not to be big deals in the National Entertainment State. Her choice of Jonathan Franzen's "The Recognitions" came to grief in a very ugly way.

But, as always, she got it. She understood what that whole episode was telling her about the absurd, overweening power she wields in our culture.

If only we had presidents who learned lessons with as much alacrity and grace as Oprah Winfrey.


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