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Given all the unsettling stuff going on in the world right now, one might properly ask: Why bother picking on someone as benign and tangential as Arianna Huffington? Why this particular woman and why now? After all, since selling her seminal “Huffington Post” to AOL (in 2011), Arianna has been out of the spotlight.
But things changed a bit in 2016. Not that there is any logical or readily apparent connection, but one could argue that Donald Trump’s preposterous presidential victory automatically brings to mind Arianna Huffington’s equally astonishing meteoric rise.
Where Trump was the thin-skinned man-child real estate tycoon who hosted a popular reality TV show and whose sudden interest in national politics spawned delusions of grandeur, Arianna was the bright, sharp-eyed opportunist on a near predatory quest for personal glory. In fact, other than Arianna being smarter, shrewder, funnier, subtler, abler, taller, and infinitely more secure than Trump, the comparison has merits.
Volumes could be written about the sustainability and high octane thrust of mega-ambition. Here are two quotes that go a long way toward summing up Arianna’s ability to self-promote. This, from Ed Rollins, a veteran campaign strategist: “Ariana Huffington is the most ruthless and ambitious person I’ve met in thirty years of politics.” And this casual reference to her, from Los Angeles Magazine: “The Sir Edmund Hillary of social climbers.”
So where did the now “liberal” Arianna come from, and how was she, in the mid-1990s (to quote David Brock) “able to reinvent herself as the godmother of the Gingrich Revolution”?
It all began in England, where the Greek-born Arianna relocated from Athens when she was sixteen. As a student at Girton College, Cambridge, she became only the third woman (and first foreigner) to be elected president of the Cambridge Union. Despite a propensity for chameleon-like glibness, no one ever denied that Arianna was brilliant.
But brilliant or not, Arianna was never one to embrace gender politics. Indeed, not only was she not a “feminist,” she firmly opposed the Women’s Liberation movement. In 1973 she wrote a book entitled “The Female Woman” (basically a rebuttal to Germaine Greer’s blockbuster, “The Female Eunuch”).
Always the proud and sexually active heterosexual, here’s a quote from that book: “Women’s Lib claims that the achievement of total liberation would transform the lives of all women for the better. The truth is that it would transform only the lives of women with strong lesbian tendencies.” Ouch.
Arianna authored a couple of other books, both of which were problematic. She wrote a 1981 biography of opera diva Maria Callas (“Maria Callas—The Woman Behind the Legend”), and, in 1989, she did a biography of Pablo Picasso (“Picasso: Creator and Destroyer”).
After being accused of plagiarizing significant portions of both books, she agreed to out-of-court settlements, a penalty that had to have hurt all the more as both books (according to Brock) had been ghost-written. Presumably, she never even had the guilty pleasure of doing the deed herself.
The year 1986 marked the start of her life in “full contact” politics. This was the year she married California Republican and oil scion Michael Huffington. In 1992, at Arianna’s urging, Michael ran for congress and won a seat after having spent a reported a whopping $30 million on the campaign, the most ever spent in a California congressional race up to that point.
And then, in 1994, after barely having gotten his feet wet in congress, Michael Huffington ran for the U.S. Senate, narrowly losing to incumbent Diane Feinstein. Shortly before the election it was revealed that Arianna had violated some state laws regarding household servants (i.e., proper documentation, tax forms), which, given how close the election was, may have contributed to Michael’s loss.
As of 1996, Arianna was still a Republican. She was recognized as an integral part of Newt Gingrich’s brain trust, and was a vocal supporter of Robert Dole’s candidacy for president. Then, around the turn of the millennium, things changed. After having divorced Michael, in1997, and sensing that Newt had burnt out, it was time to move on. Arianna morphed into a different animal. Not a Democrat precisely, but something close.
In 2003, she ran for California governor as an “independent.” After engaging in some lively and entertaining televised debates with Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, the eventual winner, she withdrew from the race, realizing she had no chance of winning.
It’s fair to say that her goal all along had been to get noticed—to show off her considerable wit and rhetorical skills—not to run the state from Sacramento. However, her name remained on the ballot. She wound up with 0.55% of the vote.
Arianna Huffington’s story ended very much the way she hoped. She set herself an ambitious goal, and she came close to achieving everything she wanted. Once the “Huffington Post” had run its course, she deftly bowed out. AOL is reported to have paid $310 million for it. Only in America.