Turn, Turn, Turn

Huffington1By Nicholas Kralev
The Financial Times Magazine

October 14, 2000

NEWARK, N.J. — Arianna Huffington says that she’s had a “political conversion” — not from right to left, but “beyond right and left”. Disillusioned with the “degradation” of US politics, the outspoken Greek-born author and columnist has broken with her conservative past and, apparently, opened up to the sufferings of the poor and underprivileged. She denies she’s become a liberal, but believes that the political system can be changed “through a movement throughout the country, along the lines of the civil rights movement”.

She is also frustrated with the money flooding into US politics; ironic, some say, since her former husband, then-congressman Michael Huffington of California, spent nearly $30m on his unsuccessful senate run in 1994. But that campaign was an “eye-opener”, says Arianna, who is now a staunch supporter of Arizona Senator John McCain’s campaign finance reform efforts.

Although she has been accused of having had more reincarnations than the actress Shirley MacLaine, and of shifting too freely through the political spectrum, she insists her transformation was “no overnight flip-flop”, but a logical, gradual process. She admits she lives very comfortably in her $4.3m Los Angeles house, but sees no hypocrisy in raising awareness about poverty. “Some of the people with the greatest social conscience were rich,” she says. “I don’t think it matters how comfortable you are, but how committed you are to making a difference in the lives of poor people.”

Huffington has chosen Newark, New Jersey — one of the poorest cities in the US, just a 40-minute drive from affluent midtown Manhattan — as the place of our meeting. She has come here to meet local people and hear their stories, which could possibly produce good material for a column on inter-city problems.

She is 45 minutes late, for which, although it’s Saturday morning, she blames the traffic in New York, where she had arrived the day before. We meet at a diner in a predominantly black neighbourhood, an implausible location for the 5ft 10in, auburn-haired Huffington. But as we talk, a middle-aged African-American woman approaches our table and tells her: “We need more genuine people like you.” Huffington, who is often recognised by keen TV talk show viewers, says she loves the attention, “especially when people come to you because of the issues you care about, not because they saw you on TV”.

She doesn’t complain about invasion of her privacy: “It’s not an issue when you set parameters. Many public figures choose not to do that and answer personal questions.” Celebrities, she believes, should use their prominence to promote causes close to their hearts. In her own case, for example, she says that she supported gay rights long before Michael revealed his homosexuality in early 1999. Indeed, she has criticised Senate majority leader Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, for comparing gays to kleptomaniacs, and spoke at the annual convention of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay support group, four years ago.

A consistently harsh critic of President Clinton, Huffington accuses him of “squandering the opportunity” to put unpopular issues under the spotlight: “He is such a communicator, he could have galvanised public opinion in favour of such issues. He never gave a speech where he challenged the American people to do something. Everything, including the speech at the Democratic convention, was pandering and checklists.”

Huffington likes to describe herself a journalist, albeit an activist. Her twice-weekly syndicated column is published by more than 100 US newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, the New York Post and the Chicago Sun-Times. She claims a good response from her readers, usually by e-mail, and her three-member staff is kept busy reading and answering letters or arranging trips and speaking engagements.

Huffington’s obvious self-confidence on camera often gives the impression that she knows all about everything, both in American and international politics. She explains this by her thorough research, “way beyond what I need to discuss the subject”. She would not, she says, “debate a topic I’m not knowledgeable in. I’ve never done Northern Ireland, for example. And I don’t follow the New York senate race.”

She dismisses both Hillary Clinton and her Republican opponent, congressman Rick Lazio, as conventional politicians, and says “neither of them will make a difference on the issues I care about”, if elected. As for the presidential campaign, she says that neither Al Gore nor George W. Bush deserves to be president, “but Gore will be”, and that “Bush can start writing his ‘concessionable’ speech” (a mocking reference to Bush’s recent pronunciation of “subliminable” instead of “subliminal”).

She describes this year’s first presidential debate in Boston was “a farce”, in which “neither man was going for the rhetorical gold”. Gore, she wrote in a column last week, “despite all the training and the advice to show his ‘sincerity and genuineness’, could not break out of his innate priggishness. And if Bush was hoping to win by transcending his unbearable lightness — well, he didn’t. He was like one of those Macy’s parade balloons — if the ropes had broken, he would have floated right out of the auditorium.”

Huffington and a circle of friends of similar persuasion organised what they called “shadow conventions” this summer, at the same time and in the same cities as the Republican and Democratic conventions in Philadelphia and LA. McCain and the Reverend Jesse Jackson were among the speakers discussing issues the other conventions had neglected, she claims.

But these conventions were only part of what was a dramatic summer for Huffington. She turned 50 — “that was the easiest part” — and both her parents died, within three-and-a-half months of each other; her father, Constantine, who was 81, died in May in an Athens hospital as Arianna’s aircraft was landing. He was a newspaper publisher, a womaniser and gambler. “He lived with us in the States for a while, to get the best medical attention, but then he lost his eyesight, and, because he didn’t speak a word of English, it became very difficult for him to be unable to both not see and hear.”

Her 78-year-old mother, Elli, suffered a “massive stroke” in Arianna’s house in August and died of heart failure. Born to Russian-exile parents, she had served as a medical aide to Greeks fighting Nazi occupation during the second world war.

“My mother was a big influence in my life, and her death left a big vacuum,” Huffington says. “She was in a coma for three days, and one night I was holding her hand and said, ‘Can you please come back? If you hear me, squeeze my hand.’ She did come back and we had another week. That was a real gift. It was an extremely intense time for me. She was incredibly supportive and not at all judgmental.”

Born Arianna Stassinopoulos in 1950, Huffington grew up mostly in one-bedroom flats in Athens, before her mother divorced her father and moved to the UK with Arianna and her younger sister, Agapi. In 1968, she won a scholarship to Cambridge, where “the concept of the opportunity cost [that every choice involves a cost] was the most important thing I learned in economics; you see its value with age”. In 1971, she became the first foreigner and the third woman president of the Cambridge Union.

Her heavy Greek accent, not a big problem in America, was an issue in the UK. “When I spoke at the Union for the first time, they were saying, ‘This woman won’t go anywhere with this accent.’ Now, I’m a naturalised American.”

Her first book, “The Female Woman”, a critique of feminism, was published when she was 24. Huffington says that being labelled “an anti-feminist” was unfair, and she still believes in what she wrote: “It was what Betty Friedan wrote in ‘The Second Stage’. At that time, there was a lot of contempt for women who were mothers, and [there was] idealisation of the career woman. We’ve gone a long way since then. Some are both career women and mothers, and some are even dropping out of the labour force to be mothers. We should value all these choices.”

She admits being female has rarely been a disadvantage for her, personally and professionally. “The only problem I’ve encountered as a woman is that some things that are seen as normal for men are considered defects for women. Who would call Henry Kissinger ‘ambitious’? But they use that word to describe women.”

Huffington was certainly determined to conquer America. In 1980, after the BBC suspended her talk show, “Saturday Night at the Mill”, she set off for New York, “partly because of the end of my relationship with Bernard Levin (then a columnist for the Times). I needed a new start.” She soon forged close friendships with people of influence and her East 66th St. apartment became a beehive of current and future socialites. She wrote a controversial best seller, “Maria Callas: The Woman Behind the Legend”, as well as what the critics called a harsh denunciation in “Picasso: Creator and Destroyer”.

Then, in 1986, she married Michael Huffington, the son of an oil millionaire and arms-control negotiator for President Bush, at a lavish wedding. After living in Houston and Washington, the couple moved to Santa Barbara, California, in 1988.

Four years later, Michael ran for Congress, and in 1994 for the Senate. She has been accused of manoeuvring her husband into a political career that advanced her own ambitions; Arianna, however, says that she tried to “talk him out of it”. In any case, he lost by 2 percentage points to Democrat Dianne Feinstein, and Arianna turned again to television and started her own think-tank, the Centre for Effective Compassion, though neither the centre nor her marriage lasted long. She and Michael divorced in 1997, and both moved from Washington to LA, though in separate homes. She will not discuss the divorce settlement, but says that they have “a great relationship”, and, though “I have physical custody” of their two children, “it wouldn’t have been fair to deprive him of being a father”. He drives them to school almost every day.

Their daughters, Isabella, 9, and Christina, 11, don’t usually read their mother’s columns, but Arianna says that she tries to encourage them to “get involved” in important issues, such as drug abuse: “I’m a great believer that if you expose children early on to the world outside their own, they will find time to volunteer and that will teach them responsibility. They are very sensitive and easily connect with other children.”

In January 1999, Esquire magazine in the US broke the news that Michael had confessed he was gay in an interview with friend David Brock, an openly gay journalist who had discovered Paula Jones, the Arkansas woman whose accusation that Clinton had exposed himself to her led to the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the president’s impeachment. But Michael, now 53, later qualified himself as bisexual and insisted he had never been unfaithful to Arianna during their marriage, with men or women. He is now a business investor and finances internet companies, films and other entertainment projects.

Reluctant to leave Washington after the divorce (“I love it because I’m a political animal”), she works east-coast hours in LA, using e-mail and the internet to stay abreast of Washington’s politics, and keeps a flat in the city’s Georgetown neighbourhood.

During her marriage to Michael, she became what some newspapers called “the doyenne of the political dinner party”. Today, most of her gatherings revolve around books; she says that, instead of hosting lunches, “I hike with them.”

Huffington’s latest book, “How to Overthrow the Government”, makes the provocative claim that America’s democracy has become undemocratic. The principle “one man, one vote” has been replaced by the “new math of special interests”, she maintains, and policy decisions are based not on “where the real crises are, but rather on where the money comes from”. McCain, who was among the first to cheer the book’s publication, says that she “deserves praise for reminding those of us who proudly call ourselves conservatives that we entered politics to do something, not to be someone”.

As many political observers and commentators wondered what had caused the transformation of the former right-wing conservative and erstwhile friend of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Huffington wrote a letter to her hometown newspaper, The Los Angeles Times, in which she said, “I admit: I was seduced, fooled, blinded, bamboozled — call it what you will. But it didn’t take long before I recognised that the Gingrich spiel was only empty rhetoric.”

“One of the changes in my thinking was born of the hard reality I confronted when I tried to raise money for groups and community activists who were good at saving lives but not at raising funds. I sadly discovered how much easier it was raising money for the opera or a fashionable museum.”

Although she has been named one of the most influential commentators in Washington by both Newsweek and People, Huffinton has no intention of running for office. “The system is so dysfunctional,” she says, “that anyone who runs is so dependent on money and special interest and it’s very hard to change things. My highest priority through my columns and speeches is to reform the system so that at least one party can change.”

With Huffington’s first half-century behind her, she says that she feels more liberated and independent than ever before. “There is less holding back of how something will be received, and it’s easier to speak my truth. After all, if I don’t speak it now, what am I waiting for?”