With Oprah Winfrey, the intersection of politics and education is making for strange bedfellows. Federal tax returns and other reports confirm that she’s accepted at least $5 million for her self-named South African girls’ school from perhaps Barack Obama’s single greatest political enemy.
Oprah is probably the most well-known celebrity to back Senator Barack Obama’s bid for the presidency. She threw him a lavish launch party, endorsed him on her show, stumped for him in the early primaries, and cried — as captured by photographers — in a Chicago park when he won the election. Her loyalty seemed fierce.
But it turns out that Winfrey is very close friends with Dallas billionaire named Harold Simmons, a leading Republican donor and supporter of John McCain.
This past August it was revealed that Simmons was the single donor to a 527 committee called American Issues Project. Its only issue: to run ads linking Obama to William Ayers, the political activist who was once part of the Weather Underground. Simmons paid $2.9 million to try and make Ayers the Obama campaign’s “Swift Boat,” an issue that might have sidelined permanently the Illinois senator’s chances and advance John McCain — Simmons’s candidate — to the White House.
Nevertheless, Winfrey has cultivated her friendship with Simmons on many social fronts since 2001, resulting in his being second only to her in donating funds to her Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, South Africa.
According to the 2006 federal tax filing for the Oprah Winfrey Operating Fund, Winfrey accepted a $1 million donation to the school from Simmons. That amount, The Dallas Morning News reported in 2007, was only part of a $5 million pledge to the Academy. Simmons is considered Dallas’s leading philanthropist to worthy causes. In this case, though, it might have been unnecessary, since Winfrey herself has donated over $60 million to the school.
It’s not like Simmons is a new Republican donor. He gave over $100,000 in the 2007-2008 election cycle to Republican candidates, separate from his Ayers campaign. He has always been an active Republican. In 2004 he was a major donor to the Swift Boat Veterans, the group credited with destroying the campaign of John Kerry for president.
Winfrey has long been close friends with Simmons and his wife Annette. She’s their neighbor in Montecito, California, having bought the estate next to them in 2001. As recently as two weeks ago, Oprah mentioned the couple on her show during a telephone discussion of the Montecito fires with another neighbor, actor Rob Lowe.
(Winfrey was not available for comment, according to her representative. Simmons, who doesn’t have a press representative, did not return our call.)
The Dallas Morning News—thanks to the dogged byline of Alan Peppard — is full of stories over the years documenting Oprah’s friendship with the Simmonses. They are often at each others’ homes and parties. When Oprah’s significant other, Steadman Graham, spoke to a group in Dallas, it was noted that he dined with the Simmonses. In April, 2006 — two years after the Swift Boat scandal was revealed — Oprah sent a camera crew to a Dallas luncheon hosted by Annette Simmons showcasing the thousands of tulip bulbs surrounding the lake on her property.
It’s unlikely though that the Simmonses were at Oprah’s house next door on September 9, 2007. That’s when she hosted an all-star fundraiser for Obama with Stevie Wonder and guests like Halle Berry, Will Smith, and other A-list Hollywood names. One can only imagine what Simmons thought as the sound of “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” blared over the loudspeaker system.
Interestingly, that was the last time either Oprah or Graham, for that matter, contributed any money either to the Obama campaign or to the Democratic Party. While they could have each made donations to Obama’s presidential bid, they gave just for the primary. And neither of them showed any interest in the Party itself, which funneled money to Obama.
Simmons, on the other hand, is a regular and constant Republican donor. And it’s not like the Obama campaign hasn’t taken notice of him. On August 21st and 25th, Robert Bauer, general counsel for Obama for America, wrote letters to John C. Keeney, Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Criminal Division, concerning the American Issues Project.
On the 25th Bauer wrote: “New facts have come to light that underscore the patently illegal nature of AIP’s formation and operation, and also demonstrate a knowing and willful violation of law on the part of its contributor, Howard Simmons [sic].” Bauer then attaches the Federal Election Committee filing by AIP that states its sole purpose: to defeat Barack Obama. Contran Corporation, owned by Simmons, is listed as AIP’s owner.
Bauer finishes his letter demanding Simmons’s prosecution: “We reiterate our request that the Department of Justice fulfill its commitment to take prompt action to investigate and to prosecute the American Issues Project, and we further request that the Department of Justice investigate and prosecute Howard [sic] Simmons for a knowing and willful violation of the individual aggregate contribution limits.”
Simmons, Bauer complained, had exceeded his personal donation limit because he’d given $2.88 million — roughly $2.7 million more than was allowed by FEC guidelines that state only $42,700 may be given to organizations other than candidate committees or party committees.
It wasn’t the first time Simmons had had trouble with political donations. In 1993, the FEC fined him just under $20,000 for exceeding limits in donations from 1988 and 1989. According to the New York Times, Simmons’s Swift Boat group was fined almost $300,000 for illegally spending $20 million to influence the election. Another Simmons-backed anti-Kerry group, Progress for America, was fined $750,000. They’d spent $31 million.
Simmons’ contentiousness is not limited to the backing of the Swift Boat Vets and the Ayers campaign to smear Obama. In December 1997, according to reports in the New York Times and elsewhere, Simmons was sued by two of his four daughters for abusing his powers in controlling millions of dollars he placed in trust funds for them. A jury agreed that he’d breached his financial duty as guardian of their inheritance, but were undecided on other issues. The case ended in a mistrial. Unusually, the case had been catalyzed when Simmons served her legal papers on one of the daughters by dropping them in her baby’s crib. The child had been born premature and was susceptible to infection, according to the New York Times and other reports.
Say this about the magnificent Tina Turner at age 69: she has no vertigo. Her 50th anniversary show pulled into Madison Square Garden last night for one show, and it was quite the show stopper. Or rather, she was the show stopper, with those hot legs and a body most 39 year olds would die for. And vertigo? No sign of it as she climbed a mammoth cherry picker that swung out over the first section of the floor audience. She dangled over it, danced up and down its armature, in stiletto heels no less. Tina Turner is the one of the world's greatest wonders.
There were plenty of celebs in the audience including Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, whom Turner spotted and gave shout outs to. Susan Lucci — the famed Erica Kane from "All My Children" — was picked up in a video sweep. Anne Hathaway, with her dad, was tucked away just above us. Al Roker and Deborah Roberts Roker slipped into the crowd. And so on. Tina Turner coming to New York is an event.
The show is just under three hours long including a lengthy intermission. There's also some instersitial stuff with breakdancers, acrobats, and powerful backup singer Lisa Fischer. But make no mistake, it's Tina's show. She sings the whole thing, without any help, from beginning to end. Madonna would be embarrassed and run away if she saw this performance. Turner is, yes, 20 years older, and dances up a storm while singing "What's Love Got to Do with It," "Better Be Good to Me," "Acid Queen," "Simply the Best," and all her hits with gusto and verve, and a rock contralto voice that has lost none of its dynamic power.
Some things don't work. Resurrecting the set from "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome" so Tina can sing her hit theme song is a mistake. At least Tina drop the wig. It's like King Tut meets Colin Farrell from "Alexander." Yikes.
Everything simple and easy worked so well. When Act II opens, Turner is sitting on a stool, surrounded by musicians, dressed in shiny black spandex. With aplomb she delivers her covers of "Help!" and "Let's Stay Together" that revived her career in 1984. It's soul music at its finest. When later she's rocking out to a Rolling Stones medley, or her old signature hit, "Proud Mary," she's the whole Rock and Roll Hall of Fame from A to Z.
Nice touches, too. With the ghastly but musically innovative Ike Turner safely dead, Turner shows a video montage of their days togehter with her own hit, "I Don't Want to Fight No More," playing in the background. At the very end of the show, when the audience has stopped chanting her name, Turner runs a video with credits of all the crew. She's got legs, and she's a mensch. What else do you need?
Tina, come back to the Garden soon. You could have played five shows with no trouble!