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The Shadow Candidate

by Dean KuipersL.A. City Beat
August 27th, 2003
Los Angeles Times columnist Bob Scheer says that what most people don't understand about his friend and colleague Arianna Huffington is that she has the "drive of the immigrant." This translates into swift-moving passions -- for Keynesian economics at Cambridge, for Republican society as the model wife to oilman Michael Huffington, for a public conversion to social liberalism as a popular columnist and best-selling author. She cares about getting the best information about any system that affects her life, and cares a lot. Which goes a little way toward explaining what is going on this morning in her study.

Like an episode of The Osbournes, the homes of the wealthy always seem cluttered with essential hasslements, and at 8 a.m., the cool, wood-trimmed study in Arianna's $7 million Brentwood chateau is full of bodies. A gaggle of fresh-washed collegiate types straight out of an Abercrombie & Fitch ad are in a second-story loft yelling down phone messages: it's political consultant Bill Hillsman; it's Endeavor talent agency partner Ari Emmanuel; it's someone chairing a party for her at producer Lawrence Bender's house. Arianna's sister and a household employee materialize and dematerialize. Workmen and messengers drop off and pick up. A documentary film crew follows her like it has been since the day she announced her candidacy, looking a little worn after having been on the job since a 6 a.m. C-Span appearance.

Arianna herself, however, sits three feet away looking fresh, the auburn hair perfect, a bit of a game face on. She seems, in fact, like an athlete, peaking. The woman once described by the U.K. Guardian newspaper as "the most upwardly mobile Greek since Icarus," and by one Los Angeles magazine as "the Sir Edmund Hillary of social climbers" has a new crusade.

"Schwarzenegger starts running his television ads today," she says with that Zsa-Zsa accent, her eyes flashing. "They don't say anything." Her eyes never leave my face. "We are going to start running some ads of our own."

The remark seems loaded with promise. One of her most recent activist campaigns, the Detroit Project, hit TV last year with ads parodying the Bush administration spots equating pot smoking with supporting terrorism (a stretch if there ever was one). The Project's ads instead tied terror funding to SUVs (another stretch: using more gas directly funds Saudi wahabism, which radicalized 19 of the 9/11 terrorists). Her campaign ads, she says, will focus squarely on her policies, but this kind of creative zinger is exactly what she enjoys best. Oregon's biggest newspaper, the Oregonian, found that her involvement with the Project crossed the line into advocacy, and cancelled her column.

In the race as a potential replacement for California Gov. Gray Davis, however, this kind of activisim might be her very real Achilles' heel. Not because it isn't sincere, but because she takes it so seriously -- and in a direction not easy for voters to follow. Few candidates have taken positions as progressive as Huffington has this election campaign, and few have so thoroughly prepared to take unpopular stances against both party and corporate power as she has in her books, How to Overthrow the Government and Pigs at the Trough: How Corporate Greed and Political Corruption Are Undermining America. But while subverting the dominant paradigm, critics say she may be playing it just a bit too clever. For instance, in saying that her policies are "not a matter of right or left, but rather right or wrong." In downplaying the enlightenment that took her from Gingrich Republican to anti-corporate, pro-Green advocate of government programs for the downtrodden. (She doesn't like the word liberal.) In shaping a Third Way that's not yet defined. And even in running a populist campaign, when clearly big donors and big favors by Hollywood big guns have so far kept her afloat.

Here is the immigrant drive coming back to bite Arianna in the ass. Arnold, too, is a new American, and Huffington is the first to admit they have a lot in common, saying in a recent New York Times article, "I was a Schwarzenegger Republican." But his drive to wealth and fame directed him toward what he sees as mainstream, pro-business GOP politics. Arianna's drive took her beyond the mainstream to something personal. Many people feel that's exactly what the state needs. Others feel the disconnect. She is a candidate of public transformations, but they may be coming too fast.

The Detroit Project ads are a good example. While most Americans are bright enough to know that pot isn't paying for terrorism, they also like their SUVs. Really like them. Even worse, Mr. Huffington, who has undertaken some ungallant attacks since his ex-wife joined the recall race, points out that, even though she drives a hybrid car now, the garage used to contain three or four SUVs. To Arianna, this is a non-issue. She got better informed and changed her mind. It should be a non-issue to everyone wanting to vote for her, too. But it's not that simple.

"When Michael Huffington was running for Senate, I don't recall ever hearing any of her pro-environment, pro-choice, anti-SUV rhetoric," says Harvey Englander, a longtime L.A. political consultant who has run successful campaigns for both Democrats and Republicans. "Now, that's all I hear. How believable is that? I don't know if this means I should vote for her, because there's been such a radical change in her views. What is she going to believe two years from now?"

Forty days from the election, the voters evidently agree. This past weekend, the two-party system started taking control of this election. Bill Simon dropped out to unify the Republican vote (though his votes may go to now-surging arch-conservative Tom McClintock). Democrats rallied behind Lieutenant Gov. Cruz Bustamante, and the L.A. Times shows Arianna running fifth, polling only three percent of the likely vote. Pros like Englander say that, right now, she has little heat.

The Populist

But what Arianna does have right now, and what she is particularly enjoying, is a direct connection to the voters. She sincerely wants to "break the hold of special interests in California," meaning the corporate ties to both parties and the Democrats' unholy alliances with big donors like the prison-guards unions. The recall election is a rare moment of sunshine for an Independent, especially someone who is identified by her colleague Matt Miller, host of public radio's Left, Right, and Center, as being "in the fourth dimension of political time and space," and she intends to make hay.

She says she'd use California's strong and (some say) much-abused ballot initiative system to circumvent the legislature and take issues to the voters. Maybe she should just do that anyway.

"You cannot do it if you don't have the people with you," she says. "I would use my bully pulpit to ensure that the public knows what's happening. Then you have an outraged public … what [Rev. Dr. Martin Luther] King called a 'creative minority.' Right now, we have a governor who communicates with the people only at election time or when his back is against the wall."

Her top three policy initiatives are all ready to go. The first is a spin-off from her latest book, Pigs at the Trough, a relentless, circular diatribe about how taxpayers and shareholders are ripped off by corporate tax loopholes and massive CEO compensation packages. Like Schwarzenegger's buddy Warren Buffett, and now Bustamante, as well, Arianna has dared to address the need to reform Proposition 13 -- not the section that protects widows on fixed incomes from losing their homes, but the loophole that Proposition 13 architect Howard Jarvis had to throw in that treats corporations like individuals. Companies thus get the same break homeowners do, and further avoid having their massive properties reassessed by "transferring" them rather than buying and selling, maintaining 1970s-level tax payments.

"There's close to $5 billion in uncollected state taxes just because of the way the tax burden falls on regular homeowners," she explains.

At an August 14 press conference in front of the Beverly Hills Hotel, a visibly irate Laurel Erickson from KNBC-TV hammered Arianna for paying virtually no income tax herself in recent years, citing an L.A. Times story raising largely unanswered questions about her deductions. Though her payments may have been legit, Arianna handled it awkwardly, showing that it's dangerous to throw stones from a glass house. Directly afterward, she approached Erickson, with a mix of openness and reproach, and demanded, "What's up with you? Why are you playing gotcha journalism?"

Her second ballot initiative would mandate public financing of campaigns. This, she says, is the only way to break a vicious upward spending spiral that Arianna herself experienced firsthand, when Michael Huffington spent about $30 million of his own money in 1994 on the most expensive U.S. Senate race in history, losing narrowly to Dianne Feinstein. The third initiative would require the use of an increased amount of renewable energies like wind and solar power, by the state, and give tax incentives to encourage their use by businesses and individuals.

These ideas, along with most of Arianna's positions (pro-union, cut the prison budget, curtail the Drug War, pro-choice, against Ward Connerly's bid to stop the state from collecting racial data with Proposition 54, anti-death penalty, etc.), jibe with solidly progressive Democrat sensibilities. But her deadly antipathy to party politics has made her allergic to the word left.

"She brings a 'political incorrectness' to break through the stagnation," says Jodie Evans, former director of administration under Gov. Jerry Brown from 1975 thru 1983, cofounder of activist group Code Pink, and one of Arianna's best friends. "I don't trust somebody who's stuck in the same place. The status quo has a deathgrip like never in my lifetime."

Not all her friends are buying the cant. "I find that whole 'above labels' stuff to be a bunch of bullshit," says Scheer good-naturedly. "There is a left position and a right position, those differences are real, and they're useful. If you're ¸ z pro-gay rights, women's rights, if you favor the ACLU even when it supports Ollie North and William F. Buckley, then on those issues you're on the left."

Green Party candidate Peter Camejo welcomes Arianna as a fellow progressive but says there are differences. "[She's] running basically on the Green Party platform -- for peace, for social justice, for ecological sustainability. But I believe we should be building a party, a permanent organization. She's stepping forward in a special moment of crisis."

Scheer points out that Arianna also represents a more mainstream shift in leftist values: abandoning class and welfare issues. She's big on charter schools and supported welfare reform. "They've basically decided, like the right, that poor people have to fend for themselves, and that progress equals kicking people off the welfare rolls," he laments. "These are surprising positions, but they're not un-thought-out ones. I think her heart is very liberal."

Arianna would use the word populist. She wants the flexibility to pick and choose among ideas that work, saying that's the way to energize a skeptical electorate. "Politicians are pretty happy with the shrinking universe of voters," she says. "In California, in the last election, 13 million eligible voters -- 17 percent -- did not vote. That's the universe that we need to be addressing."

Child of the Resistance

In many ways, this is the universe that Arianna has been addressing all along: an electorate that cares more about survival than politics. Her much-ballyhooed transformation from compassionate conservative to corporate giant-killer is all about how best to get results. According to a well-researched 2000 piece by Jacob Heilbrunn, a former senior editor at the New Republic, Arianna's real goals are spiritual. He writes: "Huffington has railed against an obsessive pursuit of wealth and fame and stressed the need to create a critical mass of concerned citizens who, one by one, will change the general culture." In her pursuit of this "critical mass" -- King's "creative minority" -- are the roots of her famously rapacious quest for knowledge.

The details of Arianna's young life are not well-documented, but she was born Arianna Stassinopoulos in Greece on July 15, 1950, the eldest of two daughters, lived in Athens, and studied comparative religions at age 16 at Shantiniketan University near Calcutta. Her mother, Elli, served in the Greek resistance against the Nazis. But Elli couldn't stomach the then-insurgent Greek Communists either, urging Arianna to read Greek mythology and instilling a lifelong mistrust of totalitarian ideologies. Arianna's father, Constantine, edited a resistance newspaper, Paron, was interned in a Nazi concentration camp, and after the war started a raft of unsuccessful publishing enterprises. After seperating from him, Elli took Arianna, then 16, and her younger sister, Agapi (author of Conversations with the Goddesses), to England.

Entering Cambridge on a scholarship, Arianna basically took the place by storm with her good looks and blazing intellect. She studied Keynesian economics at Girton College and earned a masters degree, and at 21 forced herself to confront her heavily accented English by becoming the first foreign-born woman to be the president of the celebrated debating society, the Cambridge Union. One of her tutors was the Maoist economist Joan Robinson. She is remembered there, according to a recent article in the London Telegraph, as sporting around in an Alfa Romeo and literally romancing conservative ideals, dating a young member of Parliament, John Selwyn Gummer, who later became vice-Chairman of the Conservative Party. She later had dinner with Times of London writer Bernard Levin, one of the most influential columnists of the time, and ended up in an eight-year relationship with him.

Despite moving in the elite circles of free-market thought, Arianna was apparently wary of fundamentalism, and wanted to address human and spiritual values. While living with Levin, she wrote her first book, The Female Woman -- a response to Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch. Published in 1973, the book attacked feminist orthodoxy which, she said, showed contempt for women (as anti-revolutionary) who valued children and intimacy. She was 24 when the book became a best-seller.

After writing a scathing lament to lost spiritual ideals, After Reason, which criticized both the left and the right for failing society's left-behinds, Arianna wrote a titillating, best-selling biography of opera great Maria Callas, the success of which ushered her into New York's literary society, where she went to live in 1980. She soon began working on a well-received biography of Pablo Picasso. The affair with Levin over, she kept a heavy high-society and speaking schedule, including travel to California, where her quest for spiritual fulfillment led to her then-and-current guru, who goes by the name John-Roger.

Calling himself a religious figure embodying "Mystical Traveler Consciousness," John-Roger heads up the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness. In a recent New York Times article, Arianna defended her connection to him, saying, "I've gotten a lot of value from John-Roger's work. He's a good friend." Ex-hubby Michael was less impressed, saying in the same article, "His religion is a religion of opportunity."

John-Roger became one of many fast ties to California life for Arianna. According to David Brock's blockbuster 1999 Esquire piece on the Huffingtons, she dated real-estate tycoon and U.S News & World Report editor-in-chief Mort Zuckerman (who'd also dated Gloria Steinem) and even former California Gov. Jerry Brown. One night in 1985, at J. Paul Getty's mansion in Pacific Heights, overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, Ann Getty walked into the parlor and introduced a ravishing Arianna to her opera date for the night, Texas oil heir Michael Huffington.

Model Republican

When Huffington asked her that first night what was the most important thing in her life, Arianna answered: "God." Michael immediately realized he was talking to a person of substance. He was, by his own admission, a confused and wealthy young investment banker, a former aide to congressman George W. Bush, and board member with his father's Houston oil company, Huffco. He admits in the Esquire piece that he'd been struggling with his homosexuality for many years before he met Arianna. Whether or not she knew about his homosexuality, she married him anyway, four months later in April 1986.

After a year as an arms negotiator at the Pentagon, Washington chafed at Michael, and the Huffingtons moved to Santa Barbara. In mid-1991, Michael persuaded the board, and his authoritarian, self-made father, Roy, to sell the company during high oil prices. The family's take was $500 million, and Mike's share was about $80 million. The Huffingtons had always supported GOP candidates, and shortly after arriving in Santa Barbara, Michael announced he would run for California's 28th District U.S. congressional seat. He spent $5.4 million and beat out 18-year incumbent, Bob Lagomarsino.

From their new $4 million home in Wesley Heights, Washington, D.C., Arianna became the model Republican wife. First, she had her two daughters, Isabella and Christina (now 14 and 12). Using her society connections, she not only entertained lavishly but oversaw a lot of Michael's political duties. During the campaign, she'd even debated Lagomarsino twice in Michael's stead.

She also came to the attention of Newt Gingrich, then at the height of his Republican Revolution, when he saw Arianna give a speech on C-Span titled "Can Conservatives Have a Social Conscience?" Intrigued, Gingrich invited her to deliver a similar talk at a Republican retreat at Princeton, and Arianna fell under his neo-con spell. Compassionate conservatism had become a buzzword, and she even started a think tank to promote it, the Center for Effective Compassion. She began a column in the conservative Washington Times, a newspaper owned by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.

In a March 2000 column in the L.A. Times titled "What Prompted the Transformation of My Political Thinking," Arianna admits she was "bamboozled" by Gingrich's "Contract with America." She writes, "I once believed that the private sector -- especially conservative multibillionaires who want less government involvement -- would rise to the occasion and provide the funding needed to replicate the programs that work, sustain them, and bring them to the market." As she watched Gingrich fail, she became disillusioned. Today, she says, "…we have become two nations, one basking in unprecedented prosperity, the other left to choke on the dust of Wall Street's galloping bulls."

She began appearing with political comedians Al Franken and Bill Maher on Politically Incorrect, still representing the right, but getting more moderate all the time. The capper to her transformation came with Michael's ill-advised run for U.S. Senate. During the campaign, in which a half-inspired and increasingly angry Michael spent one-third of his net wealth while secretly hoping to lose (he later admitted) as a way to quit politics gracefully, Arianna says she saw the venal, ruthless side of campaigning first hand. She hated both the parties involved. She became an Independent.

In June 1997, the marriage dissolved. Arianna took a settlement worth many millions (details are confidential). She bought the house in Brentwood and began appearing weekly on Left, Right, and Center, at first still taking right-wing positions, but very steadily swinging left and then, as they say, "beyond." She was a major force in organizing the "shadow conventions" outside the 2000 Democratic and Republican national conventions, designed to galvanize activism against both parties and toward a more democratic system.

Reflected Moonbeams

It's not like California hasn't seen a political creature like Arianna Huffington before. In some ways, she shares an intellectual lineage with her old (briefly) beau and friend, Jerry Brown.

Himself a scion of privilege, and labeled "Governor Moonbeam" for his unorthodox ideas, Brown was similarly focused on the spiritual, studying in a Jesuit Seminary before taking a law degree from Yale and degrees in Latin and Greek from U.C. Berkeley. He was twice elected governor as a Democrat, and is in his second term as mayor of Oakland as a nonpartisan. He shares with Arianna a similar passion for the great untried idea, and an immunity to risk. He refused to live in the governor's mansion, renting a small apartment instead, and he drove a plain, state-issued Plymouth. He eschews party political machinery. He has been embraced by the Greens, whose motto is "neither left nor right but forward." Sound familiar?

"Don't you need somebody who has transformed in order to transform?" asks Jodie Evans, now an advisor to Arianna's campaign. "When transformation of the system is what you're after, you have to have someone who knows what it means."

But Jerry Brown is more of a known quantity than Arianna. And these are mean times. What chance does open transformation have?

"Zero," says Bruce Cain, professor of political science and director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at U.C. Berkeley. "Her politics are to the left of most Democrats. She could shine in the debates. Being the only woman there, she's going to get some sympathy and support. The best she could hope for is to be a spoiler."

This, she swears, she will not do. Early on, she made a pact with Peter Camejo that either one would pull out and throw their votes to the other, depending on who had the better chance. Would she do the same for Bustamante?

"I'm not a spoiler," she says cagily. She points out that, even days before the election, not one pollster picked Jesse Ventura to become governor of Minnesota. Candidacies like hers and Schwarzenegger's, she says, bring out a different universe of voters. "I don't like the idea of being the message candidate. I would not be running if I didn't have a realistic chance at winning."

Dennis Romero and Joe Piasecki contributed to this report.

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