WINDHAM, NH — Marianne Williamson knows she blew it.
She took the stage Thursday alongside Joe Biden and the rest of the Democrats planning to show America she was the best option to elevate the moral debate, go toe-to-toe with President Trump, and bring America out of its political crisis.
She certainly made an impression, leading Google searches post-debate — but not in a good way. Williamson promised her first call as president would be to tell the prime minister of New Zealand “Girlfriend, you are so on” in the battle to be the best country to raise children. She mocked candidates focusing on policy over message, saying Trump was “not going to be beaten just by somebody who has plans.”
The Twitter and late-night pile-on was immediate and merciless. Kate McKinnon parodied Williamson’s plan to “harness the energy of babies to finally put a man on the moon.” Jezebel said she went “full Goop.” Stephen Colbert said she wanted to fix America “with crystals and bee pollen.” People went digging into her Twitter history to unearth the most new-agey and odd statements. A top GOP strategist started a donation push to “keep this vibrant Democrat on the debate stage.”
Even Katy Perry, who backed Williamson’s unsuccessful 2014 congressional run, cracked a joke at her expense:
“It’s safe to say ‘Saturday Night Live’ will not be a safe place for me for the next two weeks,” the presidential candidate and self-help author told me in an interview the morning after the debate.
Williamson had gamely taken many questions when I tailed her for two days campaign trail a week prior to the debate, but she wasn’t so thrilled to be asked about her performance, asking if she could go off-record or “pass on that one.” But she did admit things hadn’t quite gone according to plan.
“I didn’t know how to play that game. I didn’t know how to box. Hopefully I will be better at that by the time of the next debate. You have to roll with life,” she said. “Some of the snarkiest comments were so funny, even I was on the floor laughing. … The one that said I looked like a Cape Cod potato chip [commercial] made me laugh.”
Sometimes, all you can do is laugh.
But how did a woman whose campaign flyers declare “TURN LOVE INTO A POLITICAL FORCE” get into the debates in the first place? What does that say about both the small- and big-D democratic process? And with a former reality-TV star with no prior political experience in the White House, is it really so crazy to imagine a well-known author with decades of on-camera and public speaking experience running for president?
With over 3.5 million social media followers even before the debates (and 2.7 million on Twitter alone as of Sunday), Williamson qualified much earlier than many of the other candidates who made the stage last week. She’d reached the 65,000-donor threshold by early May, faster than half the field (many still aren’t there). In late May, she hit 1% in a third reputable national poll, double-qualifying for both the last debate and the next one.
That’s how she got onstage next to Biden, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and the rest over the race’s only red-state governor (Montana’s Steve Bullock), its only red-state former senator (Alaska’s Mike Gravel), and Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton, an Iraq War veteran.
That’s also why she’ll be onstage at the next debate, and why she’s better-positioned than some other more seasoned politicians to reach the fall debates as well. Get a good laugh at Williamson’s expense? You’re not getting rid of her that easily.
But how did she, you know, get there?
“A bitch for God”
Williamson may be new to most people who watched Thursday’s debate, but she has a 35-year career as a best-selling spiritual writer, motivational speaker, and friend of Oprah. Over that time, she’s built a devoted following outside the political realm that helped power her past a number of experienced politicians.
Williamson, who is Jewish, became a devotee of “A Course in Miracles” in the early ’80s, and developed a program to make the controversial Christian-ish work more accessible to the layman, crafting a new-agey mishmosh that blends traditional Eastern and Western religious teachings with psychological terminology. She spent a decade preaching her version of the good word and creating charities to support AIDS patients long before most were willing to lend a hand.
Her big break came in the early ’90s, when Oprah had her on her show and told Williamson she had experienced “157 miracles” as a direct result of reading Williamson’s first book, “A Return to Love.” She was an Oprah regular in subsequent years.
Wlliamson’s career took off. She has written 12 books on topics from weight loss to self-improvement to “Emma and Mommy Talk to God,” a children’s book aimed at facilitating family prayer. Seven reached the New York Times best-seller list, and four hit No. 1, according to her team.
Williamson has a way with words. She once described herself as “a bitch for god.” And you probably know at least one of her quotes. It’s ricocheted around the internet, often misattributed to Nelson Mandela: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”
That theme carries over into her campaign, where she describes a corporatist takeover of American government where big-money donations are the core cancer underlying all other problems, and says experienced politicians of all stripes have been captured by the system.
The only solution, in her mind: people power.
Williamson has spent roughly three weeks barnstorming in the early-voting state of New Hampshire since the beginning of the year, more time than anywhere else besides early-caucus Iowa (she’s actually moved to Des Moines for the duration of the campaign).
She has some surprising adherents in the Granite State, including former Rep. Paul Hodes who served as a co-chairman on President Obama’s 2008 campaign and is still a power broker in the state. He’s been a Williamson fan since her heyday in the ’90s — her quote “Who are we to stay small?” inspired him to run for Congress a decade-plus ago and hangs in his home to this day.
When Williamson began her run, he jumped at the chance to help.
“She is a very, very special candidate with something so deep,” he told me at a Manchester event. “Just as Bernie changed the conversation for Democrats about policy, she’s changing the conversation heading toward 2020 about the moral foundations of our democracy and the transformation we need in our politics.”
While she can draw throngs in the hundreds and thousands in places like her longtime home base of Los Angeles, her New Hampshire events were usually limited to a few dozen longtime fans of her books and curious locals.
At a church in Windham, Williamson found one of her larger and more attentive audiences of the trip. She began her speech to the crowd of 50 or so people, most of them women and baby boomers like herself, behind a lectern onto which her small campaign staff had fastened a campaign sign.
Quickly she was out among the pews, pacing as far down the aisle as the microphone cord would let her, taking care to make direct eye contact with many in the room as she unleashed a stemwinder that sounded more like a sermon than a standard campaign stump speech.
“We don’t have an agenda for peace but only an agenda for the perpetuation of a war machine.”
“We don’t have an agenda for peace but only an agenda for the perpetuation of a war machine,” she declared as the gray-haired crowd nodded along. “The political establishment created that. The political establishment is not going to change that.”
Earlier in the day, speaking to a few dozen supporters from a gazebo and bandstand in small-town Merrimack that she said reminded her of “The Music Man,” Williamson argued the only thing that can break down the military-industrial complex protected by the corporatist media was people power.
“The only safe repository of power in the United States of America, ladies and gentlemen, is in your mind,” she declared as many of the crowd nodded in assent.
Say what you will of Williamson; at least she’s consistent.
“The conversation I’m having as a presidential candidate is the same conversation I’ve been having for 35 years. I’m simply applying the same principles that I know to transform one’s life to the idea of transforming a country,” she said in Merrimack.
This rationale makes sense if you buy Williamson’s core argument, honed over the decades, that the power of prayer and positive thought can reshape the world. As she put it in a 2017 speech, “thought is the level of cause and the world as we experience it is the level of effect.”
It’s not exactly typical presidential material. But to her supporters, that’s the appeal.
“She’s the only candidate that has a moral base that guides everything she says and does and she doesn’t hesitate to say what needs to be said,” said Marilyn Wentworth, a retired high school principal who’d driven down from Maine to see Williamson at her Merrimack stop.
Who she is
Williamson is a performer with the mid-Atlantic elocution and patter of an Old Hollywood actress, a penchant for clever analogies and bold claims, and an effective cadence where she builds to a crescendo in her speeches before stopping on a dime on the points she wants to stress.
She’s much sharper and more compelling on the stump than the self-caricature that appeared onstage in Miami, not surprising for a woman who’s made a career of public speaking. Setting her debate performance aside, Williamson’s oratorical skill and appeal shouldn’t be underestimated. And it concerns some Democrats.
New Hampshire state Rep. Anne Warner told me she’d seen Williamson speak earlier on and was impressed by her delivery. But she wasn’t exactly thrilled with what she had to say.
“We’re suffering from one amateur president. I don’t think we need a second one,” she said. “Some of what she’s got is the same thing that Trump got: ‘New different, not a career politician, therefore better.’ It’s the ‘therefore better’ part that I’m not happy with.”
Most Democrats seem to agree. Fully 73% of Democrats said a candidate having experience in elected office made them more excited to vote for them in a recent Associated Press/NORC poll, almost double the number any other factor tested in the poll.
That could make it hard for Williamson to gain much traction even if she does everything right — while Republicans sought a disruptor in 2016, most Democrats want someone who can end the madness.
Even those looking for a political outsider are spoiled for choice. Williamson was joined onstage Thursday by entrepreneur Andrew Yang, whose proposal to offer a “Freedom Dividend” of $12,000 a year to every American and alarm about the effects of automation on the economy have created a devoted following and vaulted him past her to 2% and 3% in national polls.
The night before, Army veteran and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard gave a cogent argument for the hard-line anti-interventionism that Williamson espouses.
But that’s not to say Williamson’s campaign should be dismissed out of hand. She’s gotten this far, after all — and she isn’t a complete political novice.
A longtime Democratic donor, Williamson met then-California Rep. Lois Capps, a former minister, at a spiritual retreat in the mid-1990s. Around 2001, Capps put up Williamson as a candidate to become House chaplain, the person who gives the opening prayer in Congress and serves as a spiritual adviser to members who need it. She didn’t get the job — Capps said she was “considered a little unconventional” by other congressmen.
In 2014, Williamson ran for Congress as an independent against Henry Waxman. The powerful longtime lawmaker wasn’t much threatened, but he decided to retire after 40 years, leading to a clown-car primary for the limousine-liberal district that runs down from Malibu along some of California’s priciest coastline.
“When she ran, she said, ‘Why aren’t people talking about the children, and why can’t we worry about our children’s future?’” Waxman said with the verbal equivalent of an eye roll as he ticked off law after law he’d helped pass to protect children. “I responded, ‘Why didn’t we all think of that?’”
Not everyone was so skeptical. Williamson raised more than $2 million, drawing big-name support from celebs like Nicole Richie and the Kardashians. Alanis Morissette even penned a campaign theme song for her. The hook: “We’re going down, down, down, unless we start a revolution, awaken from this frozen, start a mending of our union today.”
Having God on her side wasn’t enough: Williamson finished in fourth place in the 16-candidate all-party primary with 13% of the vote.
Williamson said she was “naive” to run as an independent, and described the unsuccessful campaign as “the political equivalent of some people’s first marriage — It’s like ‘oops.’”
But her core message hasn’t changed.
“If you look at the things I talked about on that campaign, they’re the very things I talk about now, just time moving forward,” she said.
What she stands for
Williamson’s biggest impact on the presidential campaign is her call for reparations to African-Americans. Her proposal has pushed itself into the Democratic mainstream, with a handful of top-tier candidates saying the issue should be studied.
Another sweeping Williamson proposal, for a federal Department of Peace, was borrowed from her friend Dennis Kucinich, the former congressman from Ohio and lefty presidential candidate.
But she speaks mostly in leftist moralizing generalities rather than policy specifics — a tendency she describes as a feature, not a bug, of her campaign.
“I bring a skill set of inspiration and motivation so the American people are fully onboard,” she said in Merrimack, arguing that while Washington Gov. Jay Inslee knows the most about the issue of climate change, she’s the one who is morally prepared to lead best on the issue. “I don’t believe the technical expertise of the candidate on this issue is as important as the moral commitment of the candidate to make sure that the expertise is operational.”
She later told me that the Democratic Party doesn’t need new policies but rather moral clarity.
“I don’t have to come in here with a new policy on this and a new policy on that,” she said. “It’s the moral equivocation on the part of our leaders that has kept this from happening.”
But she’s not the only Democrat making moral and religious arguments. Pete Buttigieg has made reclaiming religious morality language from the right a central part of his campaign. Kamala Harris’ “Let’s speak truth” refrain is a cornerstone of her stump speech. Secular Bernie Sanders makes “moral responsibility” a core argument. Cory Booker mixes biblical references with mantras like “We are a nation of love.” Heck, even fellow one-percent candidate Rep. Tim Ryan is a mindfulness, meditation and yoga practitioner.
But Williamson claims she’s the only one really making the moral argument, and with the politicians it’s just talk.
“I have 35 years of actually aligning changes in human behavior,” she said. “Forgive me. I don’t just talk it. I’m talking about walking it.”
This emphasis on message over new ideas isn’t new for Williamson. Her entire career was built by offering a more accessible version of “A Course in Miracles,” a book written either by another woman or Jesus, depending on your beliefs.
But she has proposed a few other ideas outside the Democratic mainstream.
Williamson landed in hot water recently for declaring that vaccine mandates were “Orwellian” and “draconian” while comparing them to abortion restrictions. Her campaign later walked those comments back.
“I am pro-vaccine, I am pro-science,” she told VICE News, adding that while there is both “benefit and risk” to vaccinations, the government should come down on “the side of public safety.”
But when asked about a 2015 “Bill Maher Show” appearance where she expressed skepticism of vaccines, Williamson said it was “understandable that people are cynics about Big Pharma” before pointing out that the government has paid out over $4 billion in vaccine injury compensation since 1988. That’s accurate — but it covered a total of 4,328 compensated cases out of 3.4 billion vaccines distributed in the U.S. in that time, roughly 1 in 1 million cases.
That’s not too far from President Trump’s own comments warning against giving the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine to small children all at once, and his declaration that “tiny children are not horses!”
Williamson was even more critical of genetically modified organisms in food, calling for a complete ban on GMOs even though scientists say there’s no evidence they’re unsafe.
“People who are allergic to peanuts, for instance, they could die. They don’t even know if a certain gene has been partnered with something that has to do with peanuts,” she said, calling the claim that disease-resistant GMOs that create heartier crops can help feed more people on the planet “a PR stunt because it’s not true and it hasn’t been done.”
“Nature has a genius that we cannot begin to mimic,” she warned. Some of her other claims raised eyebrows, including an oft-repeated claim in her stump speech about the impact of college debt on society: “The biggest demographic of people who are dealing with these college loans are baby boomers.” That’s false: Only 17% of Americans with student loans last year were 50 or older, according to U.S. Department of Education data, and they hold only 20% of total student loan debts. Student loan debt peaks at age 34, according to Experian.
Plenty of Democrats are skeptical about her motivations for running.
“She seems very anxious for attention to herself,” said Waxman. “When you look at somebody doing something unrealistic, it’s usually about money. They want more publicity, they want more attention, they want to sell books and get ready for the next financial opportunity.”
Williamson and her team strenuously deny that accusation, saying it would be much easier to continue on with normal book tours and TV appearances without the exhausting, expensive ordeal of a presidential campaign if all she cared about was book sales.
But her official presidential campaign has been running Facebook ads to promote the book.
In New Hampshire, Williamson had spoken with conviction about what she hoped to accomplish on the presidential trail. She was sharp on her message, confident with crowds and acerbic with cynical reporters.
Short of winning the nomination, what is she hoping to accomplish with her campaign?
“I’m out to influence America. I’m already doing it. I did it today. I did it every talk you’ve seen me talk. The cat’s out of the bag when I talk. And that’s what matters — what matters is what’s happening inside people’s minds,” she said.
But after the debate, she sounded less self-assured. At one point, as I pushed her to go back on record, I stated that she wanted to be president.
“OK, yes, I’ll go with that,” she said after a pause.
Does she not want to be president?
“Yes, I do.”
I pressed: Is she running to win the nomination, or is there another reason, like elevating a message?
She asked to go off the record once again.
Cover: Marianne Williamson, author and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, speaks to the media following the Democratic presidential candidate debate in Miami, Florida, U.S., on Thursday, June 27, 2019. (Photo: Jayme Gershen/Bloomberg via Getty Images)