The strange liberation of Michael Huffington

Us goes weekly, all the Remnick that's fit to print and other tales of media madness

Published December 10, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

For a good read and a terrifying insight into what made at least one recent American politician run, check out David Brock's piece on Michael Huffington in the January Esquire, on newsstands Thursday.

"I didn't out him," Brock told Media Circus. "Huffington came to me and told me his story."

Here's a pared-down version of that story: Very, very rich Republican man spends $30 million -- the most ever spent on a nonpresidential campaign -- on a Senate race he doesn't want to win. Why? Because he's living someone else's life.

The Texas oil scion's political ascent begins when, in 1991, Huffington hears about a Republican training seminar for people running for office, and, since he has nothing else to do, signs on. Six months later, he announces his candidacy for Congress; $5.4 million later, the most ever spent on a congressional race, Huffington wins a seat in the House.

According to Brock's piece, Huffington soon discovers political life is boring. He acts strangely, hugs his staff members too much and too often. But Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, whose job it was to recruit Republican candidates, nonetheless tells Huffington the GOP would like him to challenge Sen. Dianne Feinstein in the 1994 election. Huffington, desperate to avoid running for reelection in the House, decides to run for the Senate, hoping to lose.

And so the man who married old Mortimer Zuckerman flame and syndicated columnist Arianna Huffington, the man whom Norman Mailer, after one of many soirees at the Huffingtons' Washington home, said would someday be president, spent a third of his net worth, got his wish, lost the Senate seat, quit politics, left Washington, maneuvered his wife into a divorce, told Brock and Esquire magazine readers about his 50-year struggle with homosexuality, found surcease in movie production and may well live happily ever after.

Why exactly is the now-happy Huffington telling Brock all this? "He's a public figure," says Brock. "He figured that if he was going to live life openly, the way he chooses, sooner or later aspects of his sex life would get reported in gossip columns, etc. He decided it was in his interest to reveal his homosexuality in the context of his life story, in a dignified way." The writer explains that Huffington didn't say that exactly but he did say that "his 50-year struggle to accept himself might help others to understand themselves a bit sooner."

Great details about the Huffington honeymoon and the conception of the Huffington's two children, some words about a vital difference between Zuckerman and Huffington and a public service message too -- that's about as much as you could ask from a monthly men's magazine.

You're not going to believe this, but ... people love to read about celebrities! Yes, they do. And no magazine -- not one -- is doing stories about celebrities, in-depth stories, about celebrity personal lives, relationships, fashion choices and exercise routines all together in one magazine.

That, anyway, is the thinking of Charlie Leerhsen, editor of Us Magazine. And Leerhsen knows what he's talking about. Us' newsstand sales have jumped 30 percent since Leerhsen, an ex-assistant editor at People and a longtime Newsweek writer, took over at Us last July. That's more or less unprecedented for an established magazine. Jann Wenner, whose Wenner communications owns Us, isn't exactly going to sit around counting up the cash when he could be increasing the flow: Right this very minute, Us is moving full speed ahead with plans to publish weekly next year.

"We're going to do something for a market that's not being satisfied," says Leerhsen, pointing out that no one magazine covers all aspects of celebrities.

Inside Us, Leerhsen is credited with boosting sales with skillful cover selections and an increase in "service oriented pieces" -- as examples of these, an Us spokesperson cites stories about celeb hairstylists and trainers. The trick with covers, Leershen says, is to find subjects that are "young, hip and fresh but not obscure or too far out ahead of the curve because people like to read about celebrities they already know a little bit about." (Hard to believe no one else thought of this.) Jennifer Aniston, Nicolas Cage, Drew Barrymore, Demi Moore and Michelle Pfeiffer have graced recent Us covers.

Word is that part of Us' full-steam-ahead move toward weekly publication involves lots of hiring. Leershen says he can't comment on this, "if only because I'd get tons of résumés." How's a guy supposed to concentrate on working on that lifestyles-of-the-supermodels story if he's flooded with a bunch of résumés?

Hey, what about the automotive angle on Remnick?

It's not at all unusual for the New York Times to review a book twice, once in the daily book section and once in the Book Review on Sunday. Quite remarkable, however, is the fact that the Times managed to find not two, not three, but four occasions to cover David Remnick's "King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero."

First Christopher Lehmann-Haupt weighed in with a spirited review of Remnick's "penetrating book." The following Sunday, in a long, reflective piece about Ali's place in the boxing world, Budd Schulberg commended Remnick's "racy scholarship" and "fine book." Two weeks later, Ira Berkow revisited the Remnick beat. In a lengthy art/cultural desk piece, Berkow traced Remnick's interest in Ali and sketched out the recently appointed New Yorker editor's career, first as a sportswriter at the Washington Post, then as a Moscow correspondent, New Yorker writer and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Lenin's Tomb."

Then, two weeks later, as if struck by a bimonthly fit, the paper reconsidered Remnick and his book once again, this time in last Sunday's sports section. Here Robert Lipsyte salutes Remnick's "shrewd and lively" book that "should solve plenty of holiday gift-giving problems ..."

The Style section has already found a Remnick angle. (Alex Kuczynski led a Sept. 27 piece on the changing faces of media stars with a consideration of the then-new New Yorker editor's spruced-up image; Kuczynski noted that on a September Charlie Rose show Remnick "appeared to have treated himself to an $80 haircut, a stylish windowpane-check suit and a plump silk tie.")

This is a good start, but much fertile Remnick ground has been left untouched. Where does the man eat breakfast? Does he prefer his eggs over easy or sunny side up? Wake up, Dining Out scribes! On what sort of hangers, in what sort of closet does Remnick hang those plump silk ties? Home Section reporters, hup! hup!

Teletubbies must die!

OK, Salon's Joyce Millman got there first. But incessant pounding on the Teletubbies is a good thing, and so we must duly give thanks for "American Psycho" author Bret Easton Ellis' screed in Gear Magazine's January/February Model issue. Ellis blasts the weird li'l critters, calling them "oompa loompas on acid" and denouncing them as "an odious example of '90s blandness." "The soothing tones, the eerie quiet, the New Agey vibe, the immaculate surfaces, everything so controlled and antiseptic, a world where even the spontaneous seems rehearsed, the sheer humorlessness of it all," writes Ellis, "is what makes Teletubbies so creepy and emblematic of the new mothers and fathers of my generation." A magazine brimming with shots of half-naked models, including a pic of Kate Moss naked except for big shoes and thigh-high stockings, and full of essential reading on important questions like "Do Models Date Mortals?" and "What's It Like to Live With a Supermodel?" is probably as good a place as any to denounce Tinky Winky, Dipsy, and their co-contaminants.

Salon salutes an editor and colleague

Salon is sorry to lose a gifted editor and great colleague. Dwight Garner, the magazine's book editor, begins work as a senior editor at the New York Times Book Review shortly after the first of the year. Salon will miss Dwight's insight, wit, endless good spirit and fine judgment.

By Susan Lehman

Susan Lehman is a staff writer for Salon Media.

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