Arianna Huffington Is a Brilliant, Captivating, Wickedly Funny Enemy of the Establishment. She Also May Be a World-Class Opportunist.
July 30, 2000|FRED DICKEY, Fred Dickey last wrote for the magazine about Herman Atkins' wrongful imprisonment and exoneration through DNA evidence
Copyright Los Angeles Times
Gifts from Greeks are always interesting. Long ago, they gave virtues and vices human forms and called them gods. Then they gave us words of shadowy meaning, such as mystery, enigma and paradox. Now, as if to personify those words, they have given us Arianna Huffington, a brilliant and deliciously contrarian columnist-celebrity. To those who prefer their puzzles left on the dining room table, she can be as irritating as an early morning phone call.
IT'S 1997. HENRY KISSINGER IS DEBATING HUFFINGTON on "Firing Line." The topic is trade with China. Huffington is arguing against dropping trade barriers, while Kissinger wants more trade. Given that both are prominent Republicans, a national TV audience might expect deference and gentility.
Huffington starts with the smile, then the sweet words. Kissinger, no fool, is wary. He senses something and sits like a bear about to be baited. Then, "Dr. Kissinger, there are critics of yours, and you do have some, who have suggested that you have a . . . lobbying and consulting firm that represents companies that do business in China. . . . One congressman in a way took your side when he said, 'Dr. Kissinger has always defended oppressive dictatorships, whether or not he had a financial stake in them.' "
The audience laughs at Huffington's fencing skill. Kissinger isn't bleeding, but she's cut his suspenders. He says nothing, then glares. "I . . . I regret that we have reached this sort of a point . . . . Less than 5% of my income has anything to do with China."
Her response is guileless: a Did-I-Say-Something? smile.
The exchange reveals the essential Huffington: intellect, debating skill, love of celebrity and desire to be the most clever person on camera. Mix in the perceptions that she doesn't believe the protocols of everyday politics apply to her and that she shifts too freely along the political spectrum, and you begin to understand why so many people grasp uncomfortably for a way to define her, why so many in the Republican establishment who once thought she was their friend are now unhappy with her--and why many people adore her.
To a public accustomed to the diet of gruel that George W. Bush and Al Gore represent, she is goose pate. Yet she is dogged by questions: Was she a gold digger who, in the 1980s, chose the rich and famous of Manhattan as her lode? In the 1990s, was she a Pompadour who used her wiles to maneuver her then-husband into a political career that advanced her own ambitions? Is she now a political chameleon whose coloration fits an ideology of convenience?
A sampling of voices:
Michael Kinsley, editor of Slate magazine: "I honestly can't figure her out--whether her latest transformation is genuine or opportunistic or some combination."
Bill Maher, host of "Politically Incorrect:" "No one can resist Arianna. She's wicked when she gets a target. She's brilliant. What a wonderful sense of humor she has."
Jonathan Kozol, author and child advocate: "She seems to be going through a stirring and profoundly moral transformation, one of those people who opens herself up to the world and is able to change in response to what she learns."
Katha Pollitt, columnist for The Nation: "She's not very deep, and her major interest is making herself more famous and socially prominent. I find it amazing that anyone would take her seriously."
Warren Beatty, actor and activist, whom Huffington "nominated" as a Democratic presidential candidate: "Tremendously attractive sense of irony and humor, which is desirable in someone with a social conscience. She is sincere in her struggle for a higher level of justice for people who ordinarily don't get their due."
David Horowitz, conservative writer: "A commentator with an unpredictable perspective; not a political party person; team players are not comfortable with her."
Laura Flanders, liberal columnist: "She presents herself as the radical voice, the fresh voice; it belies the fact that she is about as establishment as you can get, has always ingratiated herself into circles of power."
Tavis Smiley, talk-show host for Black Entertainment Television: "I love her. She is one of the more open-minded pundits on the scene today. When Arianna shows up, she has something to say and will make you think."
Whatever your opinion of Huffington, you are about to see a lot more of her. She was a prime mover in organizing "Shadow Conventions 2000," which will be held at the same time and in the same cities as the Republican and Democratic national conventions. The purpose is to gadfly the puffed-up conventions and also call attention to thorny issues, such as campaign financing, that the two parties might otherwise try to avoid.
GIVEN THE WEALTH OF HER FORMER HUSBAND, MICHAEL HUFFINGTON, I'm ready to be dazzled by her portion of it as I daringly approach Brentwood sans SUV. The house I pull up to is gated and elegant in that Westside eclectic style called "Italianate." It was bought in 1997 at the time of her divorce for $4.3 million, which the tax collector no doubt appreciates. The inside is open and airy, tastefully but unceremoniously furnished. There are a few well-chosen antiques, including an 18th century French Aubusson tapestry-like carpet that covers the large living room, compelling me to look down and think, I'm standing on this?
Huffington's office is the axis. It is about the size of a small schoolroom and has book-lined walls reaching to the two-story ceiling. In the center is her large, purposefully cluttered desk. Notably absent on the walls are "Here I am with . . ." celebrity photos. A staircase rises steeply in one corner to a landing that disappears into a concealed door covered by a 16th century Florentine painting. Behind it is the office that her three-person staff occupies.
Huffington is a tall woman with thick, red-tinted hair through which she often runs her fingers. She is yogurt-lunch slim and wears conservative designer clothes, which she says are bought off the rack. She is friendly and open and has a sly smile that is impish and expectant. She speaks with a strong accent that has become her TV signature. She stands before a visitor in an alpha-female stance that is assertive, but not challenging. Even her most grudging detractors concede that if charm were a crime, she'd get life. Like Bill Clinton, she has the ability to make people think they are her best friend, and that what they have to say is fascinating. Yet those skills can sometimes lead to misunderstandings. Also, as with Clinton, some people who feel special sometimes discover they are little more than casual contacts. When she moves on, they can feel used.
When she was little, Arianna Stassinopoulos, a bookworm daydreaming in the kitchen of a tiny Athens apartment, it was apparent to her mother that here was a girl not meant to stand at a cookstove with a kid on her hip. Her father, who died two months ago, was a newspaper publisher who never quite blossomed. He was a dreamer and idealist who believed that the strength of his ideas could somehow force profits into his ventures. His fortune was inverse to his ambition, however, and the small family with two daughters was often made to live in one-bedroom apartments while scraping by in Greece's fragile postwar economy. More unsettling to the household was her father's womanizing and gambling. Huffington remembers as a little girl sitting up late with her mother, waiting for her father to end another rendezvous. "To this day, my mother's hurt comes back to me. A lot of painful things in my own life are not as fresh. Living through that taught me to try not to be the cause of pain," she says.
Today, her mother, Elli, can often be found sitting at a counter in Huffington's kitchen telling visitors and various delivery drivers that they really should taste this, and have they ever tried that? She is 78 and bent with illness. The thickness of her accent makes her daughter sound like an Iowa farm girl by comparison. But far from being an Old-World mama or a quaint kitchen ornament, she is a strong-willed woman, born of Russian-exile parents, and one who served as a medical aide to Greeks fighting Nazi occupation in World War II.
After the war, she married her romantic ideologue, Constantine. But, as so many bad-marriage parents do, she put her energies and passions into a future for her daughters. After divorcing her husband, she went to her family for the money to move to England. There she and her two daughters flourished. The younger daughter, Agapi, would eventually become a professional actress, but it was 17-year-old Arianna who astounded the education establishment in 1968 by winning a competitive scholarship to Cambridge, even though she had never attended an English-language school.
At Cambridge, Huffington found an environment that was a haven for her intellect and unrelenting drive. She eventually was elected president of the Cambridge Union in 1971, the first foreigner and third woman so honored by that prestigious debating society. That position led to an offer to write about the feminist movement, which was becoming prominent in the early 1970s. Her first book, "The Female Woman," was seen as confrontational to the movement and gave Huffington an early label as anti-feminist, one that she insists was unfair. "All I was saying was that women can have successful careers and still retain the fulfillment of motherhood."
The book's success on both sides of the Atlantic led over the next three decades to seven more books, including biographies of opera singer Maria Callas in 1980 and painter Pablo Picasso in 1988. Although the reviews were mixed, both became international bestsellers. She was given entree to London's intellectual society, leading to an affair with Bernard Levin, who at the time was a venerated columnist for the London Times. Levin was considerably older than Huffington and the liaison soon hit the stone wall of the future. She wanted to get married and have children; he didn't. In 1980, she sadly said her goodbyes and headed for America, an aggressive 30-year-old author not awed by fortress New York.
There is an image that has grown around Huffington that suggests she somehow landed at Kennedy International Airport as a Greek ragamuffin with the singular ambition of using Mata Hari-like wiles to worm her way into a seat at the table of the glitterati, and then trick some rich man into marrying her. The reality is that she was already famous and, her publisher says, well on her way to becoming a millionaire from her books.
Television personality Barbara Walters remembers that as Huffington landed in New York, "she made quite a splash--intelligent and beautiful. She immediately formed close friendships with accomplished people. I used to exercise with her every day. She wasn't quite as slim then as she is now."
Helen Gurley Brown, former editor of Cosmopolitan, remembers Huffington from the early '80s as "a career girl with a nice apartment on East 66th with numerous beaus. It wasn't hard for her to be noticed. She had good connections, she was a pretty and famous author . . . what's the problem?"
The New York phase of Huffington's life seemed destined to have a romance-novel ending, and it did when she married Michael Huffington in a lavish ceremony in 1986. The reception was paid for by Ann Getty, a socialite-philanthropist who had played matchmaker. A pre-wedding dinner was paid for by Mort Zuckerman, a real estate tycoon, publisher and former boyfriend.
After living in Houston and Washington, D.C., the couple moved to the Santa Barbara area in 1988. Four years later, Michael Huffington, a Republican, began his brief political career, spending $5 million of his fortune to win a congressional seat and then about $30 million two years later in losing a close race for the Senate. Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein won that election, and Arianna Huffington caught much of the blame for her husband's defeat.
During the campaign, attacking her became a means to weaken the candidate. She was vilified as a manipulating dragon lady who had dragged the poor little rich kid into a race for an office he wasn't fit to hold. Michael Huffington still resents that characterization. "It was my idea and mine alone to run for office," he says. "I had wanted to do it for years. In fact, Arianna tried to talk me out of it."
Adding to her problems was her alienation of the candidate's campaign staff, including high-powered strategist Ed Rollins. In his 1996 autobiography, "Bare Knuckles and Back Rooms," and in a recent interview, Rollins called her "ruthless Arianna" and also said she once offered to obtain female companionship for him during the campaign while he was away from his wife. Her response, delivered with a laugh: "Even I am not that ambitious."
Rollins says Huffington is "a fascinating, ambitious person. It's 'Dahling' this and 'Dahling' that. She's not the first woman ever to do that, but she'll do whatever it takes to gain control. She can charm your socks off. It's only when things don't go her way that the fangs come out. She was the stronger of the two and completely manipulated Mike."
Huffington shakes her head in a there-he-goes-again way. "Ed Rollins can talk about my fangs, but the poison he has inside of him didn't come from me."
Both Rollins, who has a history of squabbling with campaigns that have employed him, and campaign manager Bob Schuman of La Jolla, believe that Michael Huffington would have won if his wife had not been involved. "Arianna liked to be in charge, and she didn't let go of her ideas very easily; she kept coming at you. I don't think she learned from her mistakes. However, Mike was much stronger than people thought. When Mike said yes or no, that was the way it was, and Arianna accepted it. However, she wouldn't hesitate to intimidate lower-level staffers. She could have unreasonable expectations and drive people too hard. Several quit because of her."
Arianna Huffington's response: "The truth is in the adjectives. My 'high' expectations were his 'unreasonable' expectations."
Without doubt, the campaign was hurt by issues that dogged the candidate's wife. Just days before the election, The Times revealed that the Huffingtons had employed an illegal nanny. Michael Huffington was a strong proponent of the anti-illegal-immigrant proposition, 187, and during the campaign he had accused Feinstein of once employing an illegal immigrant as a domestic worker. The apparent hypocrisy helped doom the campaign.
There also was the matter of her involvement with a small religious group led by John-Roger, a reclusive guru and leader of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness church in Santa Monica. When the story broke, Arianna, fearful of hurting the campaign, first tried to evade the issue, but the evidence clearly showed that she was deeply involved. That said, many have wondered, what's the harm? The main social tenets of the faith seem to be in line with major religions, and no one has suggested that Huffington did anything questionable. The church has been accused of being money-grubbing and manipulative, but many people might think that only qualifies it as mainstream.
Today Huffington believes that "it was a mistake in '94 for me to discuss my spiritual beliefs with the press in the middle of a political campaign. I now agree with how Bill Bradley responded to questions about religion in his campaign--it's no one's business but my own." Her point is clearly made, but the cleverness creeps into her eyes and she can't resist: "Look at Bush telling the nation that Jesus is his favorite philosopher. I doubt that's where he learned to take soft money. Maybe he sees himself as God's executioner. Gore, on the other hand, seems to be taking instruction in Buddhism, the way he hangs around their temples. He certainly wasn't there to take a vow of poverty."
AFTER MICHAEL HUFFINGTON'S DEFEAT, it was a fair assumption that the embattled spouse would gracefully disappear as well. Instead, she has become one of the most recognized columnists and talk-show personalities in the country. Her column appears in more than 100 newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. Now divorced, she turned 50 with such casual grace this month that even whiny boomers can take heart.
As she emerged from the shadow of the campaign, she swiftly supported House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Georgia Republican, and his widely publicized goals of helping underprivileged America. Then she dumped him and the cause almost as quickly. "When Gingrich first became Republican House leader, he talked and wrote about the role of government in helping the disenfranchised and restoring integrity to government," she says. "I really thought he was sincere. However, when he became speaker, it was business as usual and he forgot all those promises he made. So I decided to forget him."
Doing so earned her new scorn. "She's a sellout," says a Republican close to the former House leader. "She got attention in Washington by throwing parties, spending money and playing the cocktail scene. Now, you turn on 'Comedy Central' and there she is with Al Franken, being funny."
Tony Blankley, former Gingrich spokesman and now a writer and political analyst, says simply that his former boss "came to the conclusion he shouldn't be speaker. She just came to the same conclusion earlier."
Gingrich himself "has nothing to say about her," an aide says, in a tone meant to convey that he has plenty to say, but not in public.
Yet her involvement in the heady early days of the revolution follows her around like a co-dependent ex-lover, even, as a recent encounter demonstrates, into the camp of Bill Maher's sacrilegious army. After finishing a segment of Maher's "Politically Incorrect," in which George W. Bush happens to be the target for her skewering humor, she mixes with the audience. A blond, middle-aged woman approaches and tenderly double-grasps her hand, as though Huffington had just accepted the Lord. "I'm so very glad that you're no longer a conservative Republican," the woman says. Then she pumps a fist and proclaims, "I am woman, hear me roar!" Huffington manages only an anemic smile, for the truth is, the woman has just reinforced an opinion at the core of controversy over Huffington today.
Although still routinely labeled a "conservative" commentator or columnist, Huffington has become an exponent of several traditional liberal and populist causes, especially the growing chasm between wealth and poverty and what she considers the failure of the war on drugs. Many in the political and media establishment believe the shift shows that Huffington is only too eager to change her politics for opportunistic reasons.
That this is a squabbling point between her supporters and detractors is a measure of Huffington's inscrutability. Asked about it, her frustration is clear. "My ideas have grown gradually, but shouldn't that be the goal of anyone? In my 20s, I wrote a book called 'The Other Revolution.' The few sturdy souls who read that would know that the seeds of what I'm now championing were sown a long time ago. My ex-husband was a Republican candidate and I supported him. However, my history has always been that of an independent who has taken on pandering politicians of both parties.
"Anyone reading my column over the last five years knows there haven't been any dramatic transformations. I have always been pro-choice, pro-gay rights, pro-gun control and against corporate welfare. One of the definite changes in my thinking was born of the hard reality I confronted when I discovered how much easier it was raising money for the opera and fashionable museums than for at-risk children. So I came to recognize that the task of overcoming poverty will not be achieved without the raw power of government appropriations. That is a major departure from those Republicans who would leave it to the free market."
Personally, she says she follows the biblical command to tithe and gives 10% of her income to charities that help underprivileged people directly.
Her main effort recently has been the book "How to Overthrow the Government," in which she declares a plague on both parties and the special interests that are almost always high bidders in our political auctions. For that, she has earned praise from reform leaders of both parties. "I'm impressed," says Mr. Campaign Reform himself, Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain. "She's never afraid to take a position, and when people are like that, they always pick up detractors." Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut gives equal praise: "She's intelligent and open to change, certainly not a doctrinaire conservative."
WHATEVER HER IDEOLOGY, Huffington seems never to stop. It's Saturday night, less than two jet-lagged days from her late-night return to Los Angeles on a delayed flight from London. Friday she had planning sessions for "Shadow Conventions 2000" that lasted well into the evening. She rose for a 7:30 meeting this morning and now, at 7 p.m., she's attending the Gregory Peck Reading Series to support the Los Angeles Public Library, seated next to Gregory and Veronique Peck in the front row for a reading by actor James Woods. The room is full and the air stuffy. I notice the Pecks are holding hands, in the manner of lovers of nearly a half-century. I see Huffington's eyelids flutter and her head droop for a moment as fatigue whispers, "Remember me?"
Afterward, she approaches Woods and asks him to speak at the L.A. Shadow Convention on the War on Drugs. He likes the idea. As she stands on the edge of the small crowd of influential people, almost none of whom she knows, several approach to say hello, to ask her to speak to a Rotary Club or to seek an interview.
It's Saturday night. She's beat. Just what is she trying to prove? "That question makes me feel like a Miss America contestant," she says. "Anything I could say--I want to make a difference . . . I want to help people who have been left out of our prosperity--would sound saccharine. The true answer has to emerge from what I choose to put my time and energy into and the results it brings."
On another recent Saturday evening, she deplanes from a New York flight and heads directly to a party at the Bel-Air estate of Sherry Lansing, studio chief of Paramount Pictures. The event is a fund-raiser for the Rape Treatment Center of Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center. At the bar, when a guest is told no beer is available, Huffington jokingly offers to drive to a 7-Eleven. She pays little attention to the Michael Kors fashion show that is the centerpiece of the event. She also does not work the audience in the manner of a social climber. She mainly engages in several serious political discussions on the fringes of the crowd while having a dinner of finger food. After an hour, she is ready to move on, eager to get home before her daughters fall asleep.
She calls ahead and the two girls, Isabella, 9, and Christina, 11, are in their pajamas and waiting, side by side, on her office couch. The working mom is home. They talk and I take my leave, saying good night to the pleasant Latina who shows me out.
One social activity Huffington enjoys is hosting parties and receptions for people she admires. She turns her spacious living room into a salon of literary and political scholars, activists and a few rebels from L.A., Washington, D.C., London and New York, including the likes of campaign finance reformer Granny D, Jesse Jackson, McCain, Beatty and black activist Randall Robinson. She loves to show off any visiting thinker, and if that person is also an agitator for unconventional ideas, wonderful. Though she lives amid the world's biggest nest of movie stars, few of them are in her Rolodex.
NO ONE SHOWS MUCH INTEREST in Michael Huffington anymore, and that suits him just fine. Since his loss to Feinstein, he "outed" himself as a bisexual in 1998, just after the couple had accomplished a quiet divorce with shared custody of their daughters. These days he talks of his dedication to the Greek Orthodox Church and a determined quest for life's truth. In addition to managing his wealth--not a small job--seeking the spiritual life is what he does from his Westwood condo.
Huffington doesn't seem to be an angry man, but he resents suggestions that he was a pawn of his wife. "If I was such a weakling, how did I stay married to a strong woman for 11 years?" Did she marry him for his wealth? "I asked her to marry me, remember?" He pauses. "People who say such things are wrong about it, and wrong to say it."
It is instructive that Arianna and Michael have realized that, just as marriage must be worked at to be successful, so must divorce. They agreed to both live in Los Angeles to be near the children, although Michael believes Arianna prefers Washington, D.C., where she maintains an apartment.
Even so, to assume that the divorce is stress-free would be to assume that the marriage had no value. The big issue seems to involve the disclosure of Michael's bisexuality. There is tension between them involving either the revelation of that fact or the fact itself. There also are occasional sparks over small things, such as Michael's getting upset that Arianna's cluttered garage is somehow unsafe for the girls.
Huffington says she isn't dating currently, and she doubts she'll remarry, at least while her girls are still at home. Of the men who have been in her life, most tend to be cerebral, prosperous and not womanizers. They seem the opposite of her late father in most respects, except braininess.
Loyalty to those close to her is a strong value. Her mother and sister seem to be her best friends, and even her father, whose weaknesses broke up the family, was not forgotten. While a struggling writer in England, she borrowed 5,000 pounds to finance one of his newspaper ventures and was not surprised when the money was lost.
Jodie Evans of Venice is one of those Hollywood producers we seldom read about, a committed liberal activist who undertakes projects that make points, not dollars. She has known Huffington for 20 years and puts her in the "best friend" rank. "When I lost my 2-year-old daughter to an accident in 1984, Arianna literally took care of me. We would take long walks and talk about life, being a good mother and wife. She is as good a friend as you could have. The devotion she shows to her daughters is a role model for any mother."
The nanny issue that was so harmful to the '94 campaign was largely due to her loyalty. Her ex-husband says he told her to get rid of the nanny long before. Recently, I asked Huffington if she knew the nanny's whereabouts. She replied, "You spoke to her when you were at my house."
Marisela Garcia, 37, originally from Mexico City, has a green card now and is safely employed by Huffington, but in '94 she was scared of being the center of a political storm and of possible deportation. She also felt guilty for being a major cause for the loss of the election. Regardless, her boss stood by her and pushed the legalization process until Garcia had achieved it. Garcia says Huffington told her at the time, "Don't worry, I'm going to help you."
HUFFINGTON DISAVOWS running for office, and that's just as well. The system would chop her up and her independent streak like a leaf mulcher. She also has been convicted of--heavens--changing her mind. By operating outside the protectiveness of the herd, she makes herself a target of conformists' sniping. The careers of mavericks rarely expire of old age, mainly because they often confuse us, but also because we may harbor subliminal envy. Those of us who labor in orthodoxy often do so because we must. Most of us make the payments on our Beemers by gaining the approval of others. We get along by going along, even if we don't want to. Huffington doesn't have to. Were she not the person she is, Huffington could be strolling on the Riviera with a yipping white poodle on a leash, and maybe we resent that a bit, too.
When she was the loyal Republican wife, she took flak for being that; now she's doing what she damn well pleases, and it could be argued that we all benefit because she pleases to make things better. Her way. Because she thinks for herself, she often thinks alone.