The Salon Interview: Arianna Huffington

In "Pigs at the Trough," the former Republican skewers corporate evildoers. But don't call her a Democrat.

Published February 11, 2003 8:04PM (EST)

Ever since Arianna Huffington began her transformation from Newt Gingrich Republican to scourge of corporate evildoers, critics and admirers alike have tried to find her a new label. Is she a Democrat now? A John McCain Republican? Some kind of left-winger? Two weeks ago, the Portland Oregonian decided that whatever she is, Huffington isn't a journalist anymore, insisting that her satiric, widely covered ad campaign linking SUVs to terrorism had crossed the invisible line that separates analysts from activists, and dropped her syndicated column.

That's Portland's loss. Whatever Huffington decides to call herself, she is a lucid, entertaining writer, one of the best working in the limiting 750-words-and-out Op-Ed form today. She's been chipping away at her new book, "Pigs at the Trough: How Corporate Greed and Political Corruption are Undermining America," for the last two years in the pages of Salon and roughly 50 newspapers, using her twice-weekly column to gather the raw material on the looting of America by greedy corporate titans.

Huffington has served as the diarist of corporate excess during the twilight of the new economy, and it's tempting to say the book wrote itself. Headlines about corporate corruption have come at us almost daily, and screenwriters couldn't make up some of the surreal details: Adelphia CEO John Rigas borrowing millions from his troubled company and using it to build a golf course in his own backyard; WorldCom CEO Bernie Ebbers, who hid the company's staggering losses (and also helped himself to lucrative loans) while suggesting that supervisors count coffee filters to make sure employees weren't taking them home; stock analyst Jack Grubman trading his positive rating of AT&T stock for fun, profit and a nursery school recommendation for his twins.

But "Pigs" is not just a who's who of the corrupt and the callous. The book captures how an insular, self-dealing world of stock analysts, accountants, CEOs, lobbyists and government regulators brought us the last two years of corporate scandals. She quotes Gore Vidal approvingly: "What we have in this country is socialism for the rich, and free enterprise for the poor," and she shows exactly how it works. She's most scathing, and hilarious, on what she calls the "upstairs-downstairs" nature of modern American life, in which average Americans work hard, pay taxes and go to prison if they screw up, while corporate chieftains make huge salaries even when their companies tank, evade taxes, and get a slap on the wrist for wrongdoing.

Of course, Huffington's current political incarnation -- anti-SUV polemicist, diarist of corporate greed -- is an unlikely development for a woman who came to American political prominence as the wife of oil magnate Michael Huffington, a Republican congressional representative best known for spending $30 million to almost knock off California Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein in 1994. She was widely viewed as the brains behind the campaign, and when it failed, she went on to work with House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Then she began a slow, surprising evolution leftward -- talking up the rumors of Warren Beatty's presidential run, championing the candidacy of Republican insurgent John McCain, hosting the distinctly activist Shadow Conventions during the boring Democratic and Republican presidential-nominating gatherings in 2000, and finally, organizing the Detroit Project, which raised money and produced the controversial anti-SUV ads.

For three years, it's been a parlor game among liberals and lefties: Is Huffington for real? Can we trust her? Some of the criticism has seemed simply sexist. Mother Jones dismissed her as "a former conservative vamp," while writing favorably about the Shadow Conventions in 2000. That same year, the Nation had one of its famous in-house brawls over Huffington's authenticity, with David Corn and Marc Cooper publicly vouching for her and Katha Pollitt holding out, arguing that the columnist had reinvented herself too many times to be trusted. Ironically, some of her worst critics have been women. Writing for "In These Times," Laura Flanders also doubted Huffington's conversion, and even suggested she'd traded on the power of the men in her life to get ahead -- when in the case of the not-terribly-charismatic Michael Huffington, at least, it obviously worked the other way around.

But Huffington's work on crucial issues -- from child poverty to the drug war, corporate reform, fuel efficiency, tax justice -- has mostly silenced her critics on the left. There's still frustration at her refusal to pick a political label -- to declare herself a liberal, a lefty, a Democrat, a Green. She won't be pushed. "I'm an independent," she told Salon, over and over again. Salon columnist Joe Conason was a Huffington holdout, savaging her last book, "How to Overthrow the Government," in the Los Angeles Times. But while Conason says he still doesn't always agree with her, he counts her as a reliable ally. "She has stuck it out and proved her sincerity," he says.

Salon talked to Huffington about "Pigs," politics and her political conversion -- and why she resists labels.

Do you think if Enron and the wave of corporate scandals hadn't happened in the wake of Sept. 11, the Bush administration would have paid a higher political price?

Well, yes -- but we're not in Act V of this story yet. The last chapter, the conclusion, has yet to be written. And the conclusion has to be written by an outraged public. It won't be changed by the Democratic leadership in Washington. It will have to come from the people. But I believe this is a populist moment. I think people are going to be galvanized. Sure, it's going to be a small minority, but that's all it takes to make real change. The politicians are just so spineless -- but that's the good news, because it means they can be scared by public outrage.

But let me push you on that a little: Just as people talk about "compassion fatigue" about social problems, isn't there a kind of "outrage fatigue" at this wave of corporate scandals? In the book you refer to "scandal fatigue." It seems like there are headlines day after day, but what's come of it? Certainly it didn't matter during the midterm elections. Where are you seeing the outrage and activism?

Well, in the midterm elections, the Democrats running didn't make it an issue. Anyway, you can't look to traditional party politics. We have to go into the other American tradition of grass-roots politics. In American history, social movements and social change start with small numbers of people -- the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the antiwar movement, the AIDS movement -- all started with small groups of people mobilizing at the grass-roots level. They were not initiated by Washington. It was people sitting down at a lunch counter in Greensboro that initiated the civil rights movement. Not Washington. That's where we are at the moment.

I'm on a 15-college tour for the book. And I can assure you -- young people are absolutely outraged. I mean, they're always going to be a strategic minority. But look, it only took about 200 activists to change our policies regarding selling AIDS drugs to South Africa. Remember? You'd have these small groups demonstrating at Al Gore rallies, because the Clinton administration -- a Democratic administration -- had sided with the drug industry, which was suing South Africa for distributing AIDS drugs. And Gore changed his mind. The administration changed sides. So it only takes a small minority to make change. That's where we are at the moment.

Clearly this administration is practicing class warfare. They say their opponents are, but they're the ones -- look at that budget, look at the tax cuts, look at all the corporate welfare...

Well, look, I don't mean to be partisan, but when you raise those points back to back I can't resist: I know the Democrats are spineless, and usually do corporate America's bidding, but they did reverse themselves on the AIDS drug issue. And since Democrats use the rhetoric of fairness and inclusion and siding with the people against corporations -- well, sometimes you can hold them to their rhetoric. You can sometimes shame Democrats into doing the right thing, but on these issues I think Republicans are shameless. Their ideology makes them that way.

[Laughs] That's a good point! The Democrats may be more susceptible to shame. That's true. Definitely the chutzpah of this administration is amazing. The stuff with Dick Cheney and Halliburton is becoming more and more significant. You have accountants pushing these tax shelters and tax havens on their clients. Cheney is the poster child of tax havens. That's the Cheney mind-set. We'll never bring about any real change with Cheney and Bush there -- they feel it's perfectly fine for corporations not to pay any taxes.

So yes, they are shameless. And if this movement I'm talking about ends up shaming the Democratic leadership into challenging what the Bush administration is doing, that would be major progress. Because they do have the megaphone.

You won't state a political affiliation.

I am an independent. I have no allegiance to either party.

But you were a McCain supporter in 2000. Do you have any hope that he could run for president again -- in any scenario?

I definitely do not see him running as a Democrat.

Some people have urged him to run as an Independent ...

I would obviously love that, but realistically? I don't see it at the moment. But the moment could change. Who knows where Bush is going to be in the polls a year from now? The economy is so tragic right now. I don't think we can predict. But for me right now, the interesting game is not the 2004 race and who's running. It's how can those of us working in the trenches, in grass-roots movements, change the atmospherics in the next nine to 12 months to have an impact on the 2004 race. That has to be the highest priority -- to move these issues to the forefront. And the key issue is what I'm calling in the book the "upstairs-downstairs America." We need to be constantly pointing out how this administration's policies are exacerbating that, exacerbating the disparities between the rich and everyone else. That is the one critical issue, and we can see it in every aspect of life -- education, healthcare, tax policy. And it's not just the poor -- you're seeing middle-class people whose savings have been wiped out in the stock market, and they can't send their kids to college.

But apart from McCain -- is there anyone in the '04 primary race who you think is representing these issues?

I'm really not focused there.

So there's not even someone who's caught your eye. I'm trying to push you here ...

[Laughs] I'm really not focused there. We have plenty of time for that. The point I'm making to all my friends who have money is: Fund alternative media, fund organizations, fund grass-roots movements, keep building the critical mass. Don't pour all your money down the hole of 2004 candidacies -- yet. This is a window, a nine-to-12-month window, to build these movements. After that, fund whomever you want. And people are getting it.

Our readers are always curious about your political evolution. Occasionally we get people who still think you're a Republican completely confused by your columns. You were still a Republican, the first time we talked -- about six years ago, I'd done a report on successful inner-city anti-poverty efforts, and you called me because you were writing a column about it. And my coworkers at the time were shocked: "She's a Republican! Why does she care about that?"

Well, that's a good entry to the subject of my political evolution. Because the issues I care about haven't changed. What changed was my understanding of how we solve those issues. I truly believed that the private sector could step up to the plate and provide the financial resources and the volunteer time to tackle poverty and all those social problems. I really did. But then I found out firsthand, through observing the Republican leadership at work, how unserious they were about addressing those issues. I mean, in Gingrich's first speech as speaker he actually said the issue of poverty would be more important than balancing the budget. So there was a sense that something different would be done, but of course that was not the case.

And the other factor was seeing firsthand how difficult it really was to raise money for social problems from the private sector. When I started to raise money for these issues through my own group, the Center for Effective Compassion, I saw how different it was from raising money for the opera or fashionable museums. So that was the beginning of my own political transformation. I was always a moderate on social issues -- for gun control, pro-gay rights -- so I haven't changed there. It was really a change on the role of government. The government needs to play a role in these problems. It can't all be the private sector. And it's in this book too: You can't have an unregulated free market in a democracy. The divisions in this society are so glaring, and they cannot be sustained. Just one statistic: In 1980, the average CEO made 42 times as much as the average worker; by 2000, it was 531 times the average worker. That's the whole story.

And as you frequently point out, that kind of obscene compensation is often divorced from their achievement. You see CEOs being rewarded this way for mediocre accomplishments -- or even running their companies into the ground. You had a great column last week on the new Treasury Secretary John Snow, and how much he got from CSX even though the company really struggled during his tenure.

Yes, there's really been a delinking of performance and reward. And yet in the Senate you had [Illinois Democrat Richard] Durbin and [Iowa Democrat Tom] Harkin trying to block Snow's nomination because of the administration's [pro-corporate pension reforms], but they caved when Snow simply said he would look into it. And that's what I mean: Democrats are not using their power to disrupt, which is a major power. They could have used their power to shine the spotlight on who Snow is, and what his nomination says about the mind-set of this administration. Sometimes one individual example is powerful enough to highlight what's happening across the board. I mean, you had a story here, you have an individual who's about to be in charge of the Treasury Department, and the IRS, whose company paid no taxes for the last three or four years.

Whose company actually compensated him more for leaving his job to go into government -- because of course he's going to help them by going into government. Yeah, you had what they used to call a "teachable moment."

Yes, you did. There are so many teachable moments right now. Today there's a great story in the New York Times about tax shelters: We have this whole industry designed to defraud the American taxpayer, in a time of historic deficits and grave threats to the homeland. Why are we allowing these tax shelters? If you want to be an American company, you pay taxes here. End of conversation. The provision in the homeland security bill that you could now avoid paying American taxes and get government contracts. That was a teachable moment.

We have so many teachable moments. The corporate welfare in the budget. The confirmation of William Donaldson at the SEC -- he's the guy to bring real change? More analysts are being indicted every day. It's all there -- we need to keep pointing it out, and creating a critical mass of outraged individuals. But we're lucky in that these crooks are very colorful. In "Pigs at the Trough," I really wanted to put flesh and blood on who they were, to show how they robbed their shareholders, defrauded the public, and didn't have a sense that it was immoral.

Do you have a favorite pig?

Oh yes, it's Jack Grubman, because of who he was and what he did -- and how he got away with it. I wrote about it in my column: he's only getting away with a fine, because of the way [New York Attorney General] Eliot Spitzer settled with Wall Street. I mean, the fine was $15 million, which will sound like a lot to our readers, but he was making $20 million a year, so it's less than a year's salary, not to mention all of his wealth. And then you look at what investors lost because of his advice, which amounts to billions of dollars. It just confirms that upstairs-downstairs America I talk about in the book. He got away without punishment, without even having to admit wrongdoing.

Whereas those of us in downstairs America would be going to jail.

Right. I asked Spitzer: Why didn't these guys at least have to admit wrongdoing? And he said something like, well, if they did, companies might go bankrupt. But I thought the invisible hand of capitalism was supposed to pick winners and losers, not the attorney general of the state of New York. I wrote the book because I wanted to make clear that these corporate scandals are political scandals -- because if it were not for the collusion between Washington and corporate America, none of this could happen. The watchdogs would not have turned into lapdogs, and that's what happened. What's disturbing is that nothing has really changed. And it will keep going on unless and until we demand change. And people are starting to demand change.

Were you heartened by the response to the Detroit Project? Some of the media were kind of snarky.

Yes, but I don't worry about that. It's been amazing. You know that when I wrote the column, I really wasn't planning a campaign. I wasn't. I wrote about the idea for the ads, and I ended the column by asking if anyone would be willing to pay for them. And the readers responded. I woke up to an e-mail from you -- forwarding me these amazing messages from readers, asking where to send their money -- saying to me, "What are we going to do about this?" So we created our own nonprofit, the Detroit Project, made the two ads, and look where we are. It's not all us, by any means. But we've had a national conversation about fuel efficiency and oil independence: Barbara Boxer is introducing legislation to cut the tax credit for large SUVs for business; Dianne Feinstein is trying to close the SUV-fuel efficiency loophole; Mitt Romney, the Republican governor of Massachusetts, is trying to get SUVs out of the state fleet, and you have another Republican, Gov. George Pataki, trying to end the SUV tax credit in the state of New York. We have thousands of people who've come to our Web site pledging to give up their SUVs when their lease is up. Even the president is pledging to increase hydrogen research -- which is great, though we all know it's a diversion from what he could do right now. But the fact that he felt compelled to do even that shows how far we've come -- how much public opinion had shifted even in the last month.

What did you think of the media coverage?

Look, the ad got criticism, but if we had not done this ballsy ad, if we had not done something edgy and compelling, we would not have gotten coverage at all. We upset some people, who took it literally. The ads were parodies of the drug ads. Parody and satire is an important way to capture the imagination. But literal people like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh got mad and tried to change the subject and make it ad hominem, or ad feminem -- direct it at the people behind it.

And make you the issue.

Yes, but that doesn't bother me one bit. I consider it totally part of the process. I focus on the change we brought about. But it's not all about us -- there's a response now that would not have been there a year ago.

It's probably a combination of Iraq, terror, the economy. And you call the ads satire, but I actually think that it's fair to make the case that reducing our dependence on foreign oil makes us safer.

Well, sure. To take the fuel-efficiency issue and make it a national-security issue was a new way to look at an old issue, and that opened people's eyes up. People care in a different way. But truly -- part of it is simply the moment we're living in. This is a populist moment. In the book, I quote Henry Blodgett saying he and the other new economy cheerleaders were "plucking the chords of the Zeitgeist." I kind of love that quote, because he really did that at the time -- they really were plugged into the zeitgeist. But now it's a new zeitgeist -- a populist zeitgeist -- and it's ours.

This story has been corrected since it was first published.

By Joan Walsh

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