She was the Pearl Mesta of the Republican Revolution. Every big-name conservative in Washington supped at her table. Newt Gingrich listened to her advice. Highly ambitious -- some said ruthless -- she was a force to be reckoned with. Now, disillusioned with the "intellectual bankruptcy" of the GOP Congress, Arianna Huffington has turned against her old cronies and refashioned herself as a satirical commentator who fraternizes with media lefties like Harry Shearer, Al Franken and Los Angeles Times columnist Robert Scheer. Her conservative distrust of government has lately become tempered by a concern for America's increasingly two-tiered society. Her latest activist endeavor is as chairman of the Center for Effective Compassion, a nonprofit policy and media group aimed at providing an alternative, nongovernment safety net for the nation's poor.
As a single mother of two young daughters, she embodies a combative mix of identities: a millionaire who has vowed to fight poverty; a political commentator who earnestly preaches the power of satire; a Republican who constantly quotes her progressive friends. Whether she's cracking dirty jokes on "Politically Incorrect," condemning Newt Gingrich for abdicating the leadership of the GOP, or sermonizing on the need to bridge the poverty divide, Huffington still relishes the opportunity to speak her mind.
She is also an author, most recently of "Greetings from the Lincoln Bedroom," a first-person Alice in the White House fantasy of an overnight stay at the Lincoln bedroom. Traipsing through the news-driven scandals of the day, she meets a talking Socks, a peeping television, a hot-tubbing Newt and -- of course -- a commander in chief with wandering hands. The book has a gleeful surface -- as if written in naughty spurts: "Hey, what if the television could see me undress?" But inside this bright tissue-paper wrapping, Huffington has planted the seeds for her "postpartisan" political agenda, an agenda she says she hopes will find an audience among those who have tuned out of old-fashioned, two-party politics.
During an interview at Salon's offices recently, she was unpretentious, gracious and cheerfully answered any question thrown her way. Between cell phone calls about arranging her daughter's birthday party, she talked about the "right-wing conspiracy," Kenneth Starr, why she turned on Newt Gingrich and why the American economy is like the Titanic.
Initially when Hillary Clinton suggested that there was a right-wing conspiracy, many people on the left and the right thought that she was being paranoid. Now it seems that there's some basis for her statements, what with Richard Mellon Scaife possibly funneling money to Starr's key witnesses. Is there truth to the notion that the Clinton scandals are a political plot?
Absolutely. Increasingly, all these scandals are exposing the corruption of the political class. We have two political parties but one political class. The concerted efforts on both the left and the right to take out the other side is not unusual. But there are certain things that have nothing to do with Richard Scaife. The way that Hillary Clinton used the term was as if the "vast right-wing conspiracy" had created Monica Lewinsky and her husband's alleged affair. And it's not just whether there was any sexual involvement but whether there was an attempt to keep her quiet through giving her jobs, whether there was an attempt to suborn perjury. All these things are not products of any concerted effort -- they either happened or did not happen. That's what's under investigation.
But corruption is not limited to the Clinton administration. When you have both chairmen of the two parties -- Don Fowler and Haley Barbour -- clearly lying to the [Sen. Fred] Thompson committee about fundraising efforts and nobody caring and nobody taking any steps to stop it, it's just promoting people's tuning out of politics; and that's my greatest concern.
As someone who has been a political wife, what do you think of Hillary Clinton?
I really preferred Hillary Clinton when she was being strong, and
professional, and expressing herself, and really fighting to create a new role for the first lady. I am very concerned about this new persona of enabler-in-chief. It is worse than "stand by your man." It is really like enabling your man. We have spent years trying to convince women that they don't have to stand by abusive men. And this is a form of emotional abuse.
I don't know what kind of agreement you can have with your husband where what he does extracurricularly does not have any effect on you. I don't believe human nature is set up that way. It is clear that she is paying a huge price. That is her decision and that is her life, but the message that it is sending out to other women concerns me. I am the child of a philandering father. I saw the price my mother paid, and I was the one telling her, "You've got to leave him."
What's your take on the current state of the Clinton scandals? First, it looked as if he would be brought down by the Lewinsky affair; now, if the polls are anything to go by, it looks as if Kenneth Starr may go down first.
What surprises me is the extent to which we determine our responses to what's happening based on polling results. It's truly extraordinary that we treat polling as if it's infallible, as though it's the chicken entrails of ancient Greece. I, together with satirist Harry Shearer, have started a campaign against polling on our respective
Web sites that we're calling "Partnership for a Poll-free America."
Interesting! Last week Newt Gingrich went on the attack, and the next Salon obtains this confidential memo from Republican pollster Frank Luntz advising Republicans to speak out against Bill Clinton on the sex scandal.
That's my problem with polling! Frank Luntz first told Republicans to say nothing. And they said nothing. Now he's telling them to say something, and it just makes you so contemptuous about political leaders; it's like they're little marionettes literally being run by the pollsters.
The timing for Newt's particular GOPAC speech was very interesting. The Republican base is so enraged with Gingrich and the leadership. On my book tour, I have been speaking to various Republican audiences, and the easiest applause line is: "Gingrich should be replaced." That hasn't made the news much. So his attack on the president is not a cri de coeur. If he believes it now, why didn't he believe it for the last three months? What
has changed? What has happened is that the poll results have come back about how his base is responding.
In your book, you have Gingrich and Clinton acting like frat boys: drinking in the White House hot tub and then peeing into the bushes together. What's your sense of the real relationship between the speaker and the president?
I think Newt really admires Clinton for his ability to survive. Because in the political class, the thing people most respect is the ability to survive as a member of the political class. It's like a self-perpetuating oligarchy. Newt has learned a lot from studying Clinton. I think Gingrich admires Clinton and Clinton uses Gingrich. It's a very dysfunctional relationship. But Clinton has natural charm. Even my children adored him when they met him at Hilton Head.
Do you think Ken Starr has gone too far?
I wrote a column about the logical fallacy a lot of us have been indulging in, which is that what you think of Ken Starr is really a separate issue from the inner sense of the guilt of Bill Clinton. Because that is going to stand or fall on the facts. The fact that he's called Monica Lewinsky's mother to testify is something that is routinely done with African-American mothers in inner-city crime cases, and nobody has ever raised a voice. But now it suddenly becomes an issue because we have a middle-class
mother we can identify with. There's no question Starr did things he should not have done, like subpoenaing Sidney Blumenthal. But he knows what case he's building in a way that we don't. He can't get what isn't there.
He can if he gets people to lie.
If Web Hubbell was paid $700,000, it will be established whether it's hush money or it's not. That's why you build a case that's based on more than one source. We don't know what went on behind the grand jury doors, we don't know what Betty Currie or Vernon Jordan said. We do know that Vernon Jordan let it
be said through his friends that he's not going to fall on his sword for the president. And he's been pretty absent -- he was not at the Washington correspondents dinner and he did not go to Africa, so clearly there's something going on here.
You speak of America being a two-tiered society. What do you mean?
Basically, I have two very specific ideas that drive what I am saying. Both ideas are expressed by Lincoln when he comes to visit me at the end of the book. He talks about how, because of this shallow bipartisanship that dominates American politics now, we have basically neglected the fact that America has become two nations. The entire political conversation that we are having
involves one nation, in which you have both parties saying how great the economy is, how high the Dow Jones is, when 6 out of 10 people are not touched by the Dow Jones. The other nation is the one
left behind in crumbling inner cities, public schools where the children cannot learn and are not safe.
How do you reconcile being part of the privileged
class, being a very rich woman, and being very concerned about these
By trying to walk my talk. I tithe 10 percent of my income, both my earned income and my investment income, to poverty-fighting causes.
There's also a group I support called the Renewal Alliance that focuses on using government to promote citizenship and civil society. The centerpiece of the agenda is a charitable tax credit of $500 that any family owes to the IRS and allowing the family to spend it on a poverty-fighting cause of their choice. The hope is that a substantial minority would get involved in
If you really believe in closing the gap between the rich and the poor, why not embrace redistributive policies of some sort?
Because they don't work. I am a pragmatist. This is not the way to change things. The way to change things is for the critical mass of citizens to get involved in the solutions of social problems, both by tithing, and by giving time. Right now you have 1 percent of corporate income going to charity. And a lot of what the wealthy give is not to poverty fighting but to the museums, and to their own kids' schools. The war on poverty did not succeed.
And it's not just rich and poor, it is how we are bringing up children. The greatest threat that we are facing is that we have 15 million children at risk who, if we don't do something, are going to enter a life of violence. Yet we have demonstrated through studies that the presence of a mentor, of a caring adult in the life of those children, can decrease by 50 percent the likelihood that they will enter a life of violence. That is something we can do, if we can find a way to get people involved. Political leaders are not addressing it as a problem. In my speeches, I
talk about this as the upcoming iceberg. One of the reasons that
the Titanic has been such a phenomenal cultural success is that
unconsciously, it is a symbol -- I have always been a Jungian so I am interested in cultural symbols -- and the Titanic is a huge symbol of what we are ignoring. The captains of the ship think it's unsinkable. Both parties are talking about this economy as if it is unsinkable.