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The New York Times - July 20, 2000

 

Honing the Politics of Surprise
By Russ Baker

POLITICAL insiders may debate the motivations behind the latest evolutionary twist in the remarkable life of Arianna Huffington, but one thing is certain: Ms. Huffington understands the element of surprise. She stood by her desk in her elegant, sun-dappled home office on a perfect Southern California morning early this week, talking about her latest and indisputably biggest adventure. Up on a landing a library wall panel swung open, revealing a hidden room. A young woman popped out, and then a second entered from another part of the house, climbed the spiral staircase and disappeared behind the bookcase.

"How many people can you fit in a Volkswagen?" Ms. Huffington cracked delightedly in her Greek-with-a-touch-of-London accent, as she settled into a gold brocade sofa. Ms. Huffington explained that she had converted a guest bedroom off the landing into an office for the two staff members and the handful of paid interns helping her and a coalition of citizens groups stage a happening certain to give fits to Al Gore and George W. Bush -- a milestone of sorts on Ms. Huffington's dizzying political journey from right to left.

This summer, as the Republican and Democratic Parties hold their national conventions in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, shadow conventions will convene nearby, providing a running commentary and critique, with teach-ins, reform politicians and stand-up comedians. The goal of Ms. Huffington and the Internet impresario Peter Hirshberg is to "give voice to millions of Americans currently shut out of the national debate." Perhaps coincidentally, Ms. Huffington has managed to harness herself and her unusual ability to generate buzz on three issues whose solutions have eluded Democrats and Republicans alike: the tainted campaign finance system, the growing income gap and the costly war on drugs.

Ms. Huffington has proven expert at getting attention for causes -- including herself -- during a varied career as socialite, politician's wife, author and columnist. To publicize the shadow conventions, she called on media favorites like Senator John McCain and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. She joined with citizen advocacy groups like Common Cause, and tapped her friends, including the actors Warren Beatty and Ron Silver and the comedian Bill Maher. She helped raise $400,000 in seed money from such disparate sources as the billionaire philanthropist George Soros's nonprofit Open Society Institute, the Pew Charitable Trust -- and promises of ice cream from Ben & Jerry's.

"She's providing fresh and new ideas in a very thoughtful and very provocative way," Senator McCain said. "I find her to be adding a lot to the national debate on the issues," but, he added wryly, "I told her I'm going to come and tell you why you should vote for Governor Bush."

Others are more skeptical. "It's easy for someone who has maids making her beds to talk about voiceless Americans," said Bob Mulholland, a California Democratic Party official. "Most Americans get a kick out of somebody like her preaching to the rest of us."

People may argue about why a former right-wing conservative, who once counted herself among Newt Gingrich's most loyal friends and admirers, is now encouraging her troops to lob grenades at the establishment. But no one can dispute that this is one determined woman.

Last week, she took a red-eye to New York for a shadow convention planning luncheon, flew to Athens to pick up her two preteenage daughters, rocketed back to Santa Barbara for a weekend drug policy retreat (and her 50th birthday dinner), then back to Los Angeles for the party she was throwing for Norman Mailer's wife, Norris Church, who was celebrating her first novel, "Windchill Summer" (Random House).

Liberals are often willing to put aside political differences when dinner and a little glamour are at stake. Fine wines and lovely surroundings (including a portrait of Ms. Huffington by Francoise Gilot, Picasso's mistress) don't hurt. Which may explain why about 80 people came to the event, including Marla Maples (who is marrying Mr. Mailer's son) and Mr. Beatty, who showed up late.

Ms. Huffington swept down her spiral staircase in a flowing, graphite, pinstriped linen pantsuit, seemingly eager that everything be perfect and everyone have a grand time. The guests seemed equally concerned that they flatter her sufficiently for a return invitation.

The crowd included Ms. Huffington's extensive supporting cast, including her wardrobe designer and the Los Angeles celebrity chef Hans Rockenwagner, who is doing the food for the shadow convention, Ms. Huffington announced. Then she pointed out Antonio Villaraigosa, the former Speaker of the California State Assembly and a current Los Angeles mayoral candidate, whom she had urged to be a presenter at the event. "I'm trying to get the shadow convention into every conversation," she said conspiratorially.

Ms. Huffington's life has been one of constant motion, and -- in the spirit of her nemesis Al Gore -- regular reinvention. Born Arianna Stassinopoulos, she grew up in modest circumstances in and around Athens, became a stellar debater at Cambridge and soon had her first book, a critique of feminism, and a second, prescribing a spiritual revolution as an antidote to an empty, materialistic society. She landed in 1980 in New York, penned a controversial best seller about the opera legend Maria Callas and then a harsh denunciation of Picasso. While living in California, she was introduced by the socialite Ann Getty to Michael Huffington, the shy son of a self-made oil millionaire, and they married and settled in Washington.

Although dismissed by some as a gold digger, Ms. Huffington showed resourcefulness when it became apparent that Michael's income as an arms-control negotiator for President George Bush was insufficient to support their lifestyle and that his real worth was bound up with stock in the family firm. She went on the lecture circuit to pay the bills for their Georgetown home and staff.

In 1992, Mr. Huffington ran for Congress from Santa Barbara. Within two years, he made a bid for the Senate, spending nearly $30 million of his own money. The seemingly reticent candidate often seemed overshadowed by his dynamic wife, who virtually directed the vitriolic campaign. He lost by 2 percentage points. Ms. Huffington turned her attention to her column, cheerleading for the conservative Contract With America and becoming a power hostess, Tina Brown with a Melina Mercouri accent.

Television beckoned. Between frequent spots on "Politically Incorrect," she started her own think tank, the Center for Effective Compassion. It stressed private charity, rather than government aid, for helping the poor. The group fizzled, and so did her marriage.

She confided that she is seeing no one special right now and will not discuss her divorce settlement or any details of her marriage to Mr. Huffington, who revealed his homosexuality in a 1999 Esquire profile.

Three years ago, the Huffingtons relocated to separate houses in Los Angeles. Reluctant at first to leave Washington, Ms. Huffington nevertheless found her perfect roost, in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles, an affluent but understated area near the ocean. The house is a yellow Italianate, built in the 1920's, with four bedrooms, a foyer with an arched Romanesque ceiling, a French garden hidden behind dense foliage and plenty of room to entertain. "I didn't want anything big and pretentious, you know, some of these big Beverly Hills homes," she said.

In California, her views shifted leftward. Soon, as in Washington, her home became a salon. The Capitol Hill and think tank types were replaced by Mr. Beatty; Pat Caddell, a Jimmy Carter pollster and now a consultant for television's "West Wing"; and Richard Walden, head of Operation USA, a humanitarian-relief group that uses its Hollywood connections to get aid into atypical recipient countries, including Cuba. Her columns seemed to gradually uncouple from the conservative express.

SHE now is the host of about one book party a month, plus frequent dinners. The writer Christopher Hitchens noted that Ms. Huffington had held a party for the release of his book on President Clinton.

"She is the salon of Los Angeles," said Michael Jackson, a popular Los Angeles radio talk show host, who attended Ms. Huffington's party on Monday night for Norris Church Mailer. "There's nobody who can attract the variety and caliber that she does."

Ms. Huffington can play the wonk: she's full of statistics about poverty and racial disparities in drug convictions, gleaned from her correspondents and assembled by her research assistant. But when asked to compare her current and former allies, she turns pure politico: "I think these distinctions are completely obsolete. A lot of my friends are just as disenchanted with the Democratic Party as I am with the Republicans."

But the fact is, her new crowd is a whole lot more left, filled, for example, with correspondents for The Nation magazine, who have been openly squabbling with colleagues over whether Ms. Huffington's change of heart is to be trusted. One convert is Mr. Hitchens, who had ridiculed her in print, he said, recalling Ms. Huffington's dalliance with New Age cults and the subsequent Gingrich era. "Maybe she's finally found a safe harbor."

Change came from her unsuccessful efforts to assist poverty-fighting groups. "I saw how much harder it was to raise money for them than it was to raise money for the opera or a fashionable museum," she said. "So I have definitely shifted my view on the role of government funding."

Ms. Huffington also lost patience with her conservative allies and their promises of attacking poverty their way. "It's now six years since the Republican takeover of Congress, and none of these things have been accomplished. There was not a collective will."

Robert Scheer, the liberal Los Angeles Times columnist who has been a regular sparring partner of Huffington in both print and on radio for years, said: "If Arianna were a man, there would be no attacks on her whatsoever. Sure, she's shifted her views. Sure, she's inconsistent. Sure, she likes to be on TV. But I find her one of the brightest, most decent and hardest-working people involved in media."

Along with her column, which appears in more than 100 newspapers and on two Web sites, she has a recent book, "How to Overthrow the Government" (Regan Books), a citizens' primer on the corrosive effect of money in politics and what to do about it.

As with many nascent revolutions, the one Ms. Huffington wants to ignite is comfortable behind the barricades. Surrounded by a buzzing, chirping and whirring cacophony of phones, intercoms and faxes, she maintains a sunny calm, like a queen in a madhouse. Helping her keep a Martha Stewart-like grip on life are a nanny, a housekeeper and a house manager, who doubles as her driver.

Light streams into her high-ceilinged home office through a cathedral window. The walls are covered with paintings by her daughters (9 and 11), who provide the main diversion from her work-centered existence. She especially likes taking them on Saturday hikes in the nearby mountains. Ms. Huffington's 78-year-old mother occupies a separate wing and until a recent illness did all the cooking, even forcing her Greek specialties on the FedEx man.

Ms. Huffington likes to work East Coast hours. She's up early, phoning her contacts on Capitol Hill or in New York, then gets her children ready for school. Her husband frequently chauffeurs them.

The yard, where she stages events for her children's private school, has a pool, a cage with rabbits and a hillside space where her daughters have their vegetable garden.

As the tour ended, she led a visitor into her daughters' playroom, where a staff worker, looking quintessentially Southern California with a sort of Gypsy-style hairdo and dual earrings, was typing on a laptop amid the toys. "Reliving his childhood," Ms. Huffington said, chuckling.

Upstairs on the landing, the panel covering the hidden room was again nearly closed. Atop it was a mischievous, 15th-century painting, showing two laughing cardinals horsing around over a game of cards. It was entitled "The Winning Hand."

Down below, at her desk, Ms. Huffington could be overheard on a conference call, declaring triumphantly "Will they help? Of course, darling."

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