You go, girlfriend

One minute she's vacationing with a friend in rainswept Ireland. The next minute -- with Warren Beatty, a claque of consultants and her fans urging her on -- she's running for governor of California.

Published August 7, 2003 8:08PM (EDT)

One of the snags of going on holiday with one's high-powered girlfriends is they suddenly split to run for Governor of California. Especially if it's raining.

I am sitting with Arianna Huffington in the dining room at Ballymaloe House in County Cork debating with her kids and mine whether to explore the tea shops of Bunratty or the rainswept cliffs of Ballycotton when there's another blast of the Tallyho overture from Arianna's cell phone. This time it's Warren Beatty. The gist of his message: "Run Arianna Run!"

Perhaps it's all a brilliant stunt, like Bunburying in "The Importance of Being Earnest," so she can escape the Irish weather. As I start to consider this possibility there's a cacophony of new calls -- from political consultants, Hollywood activists, media pundits, and, just when she had sat down again to enjoy the show-stopping summer pudding, a Hispanic labor leader who swears the fealty of all his members. Nope, it's real. We've only been in Ireland for two days and Arianna is heading back to L.A. to throw her hat in the California recall ring.

The key to Warren Beatty as a political consultant is that he sees everything as a movie. Huffington versus Schwarzenegger? The Athenian Amazon versus the Austrian Atlas. Big hair versus big biceps. Insurgent Greek versus Hapsburgian Hulk. TV talker versus action star. The battle of the accents, a cartoon race between self-invented superaliens. Maybe he's right. Except that ever since it became clear that the Democratic governor Gray Davis was toast and a moneybags Republican car alarm mogul successfully financed a recall campaign, this race has been not so much a movie as an episode of "American Idol."

Ultimately even Arnold had his moment of doubt. Schwarzenegger's sudden reticence was supposedly about "family issues," i.e., the unwillingness of his wife Maria Shriver to keep reading about his rumored infidelities. But I suspect that Arnold's issues were more political than pulchritudinal. Arnold worried that edging out 300 weirdos in the recall wouldn't be about anything but his name I.D. as a movie star - and he wants full-on political acceptance. Anything less would fail to shove it up the nose of his hoity toity Kennedy in-laws. As one Hollywood sage summed it up to me, "Going for the recall is like putting out a $10 million indie movie and hoping to do 50 million in grosses. As always, Arnold wants to make a $100 million picture and gross a billion." But in the end, the "T3" babe knew that the Governor was too good a part to turn down.

With Arnold as a foil for Arianna, I see no downside in her giving the race a whirl as an Independent candidate. Her whole career has been one of fantastic reinvention. I've known her since she was the star of the Cambridge Union debating society and I was a burgeoning hack at Oxford in the seventies. I've enjoyed all her incarnations, from early protigi of Lord Weidenfeld and girlfriend of the London Times' op-ed grey beard Bernard Levin to conqueror of New York society and Park Avenue hostess in big-shouldered suits, from inexplicable New Age disciple of self-fulfillment guru John-Roger to campaigning wife of Republican oil heir Michael Huffington (she helped him blow $30 million on a failed race for California senator), from Washington right-wing saloniste to shrewdly self-deprecating comedienne divorcee on the talk show circuit -- right down to her unlikely role today as ecologically hip anti-SUV campaigner, folk heroine of radical political web sites, and author of the best-selling, corporate America-skewering "Pigs at the Trough." In all the frenzy of these juggled identities she's still a tactile mom, wrapping her adoring daughters in absentminded embraces as she jabbers into her earpiece about campaign finance reform.

There's no doubt that Arianna's weird odyssey was always destined to settle her in California, capital of reinvention. She looks 10 years younger than she did in New York and D.C. The big hair has slimmed down and she has lost the Madame Secretary maquillage, too. Now she's hot - a tall, striding 50-something babe in designer jeans who hikes the Hollywood hills with entertainment power women.

At first, Arianna's noisy switcheroo from Republican moll to left-of-center firebrand was seen as the opportunistic move of a publicity ho, given the handsome terms of her divorce settlement from Huffington when he decided to come out as gay. But Arianna is genuinely smart. Liberated from Huffington (who made a sudden, unwelcome re-intrusion the other day when, in an act of competitive petulance designed to embarrass her, he announced that he too may be a candidate in the recall race), she spent the next seven years industriously columnizing. She won the hearts of TV producers by rescuing innumerable draggy cable TV talk shows with ballsy displays of intellectual flame-throwing. Now the left has finally realized they ought to be grateful to her. They badly need entertaining spokespeople and Arianna is articulate and funny and sexy.

Early Wednesday morning, Candidate Huffington unveiled her newest identity in a packed press conference at the grassroots South Central L.A haven for needy teens, A Place Called Home. She has always been a dynamite speaker and this one was a barnburner.

"My Democratic friends say that this recall is a right-wing power grab; backed by those who want a backdoor way to overturn an election they lost.

"And you know what? Those friends are right. [But] however corrupt the parentage of the recall effort, it has given us an unprecedented opportunity to take back our political system -- to reorder our policy priorities so that our public servants will finally, at long last, get back to serving the public.

"I am not running to aid and abet a right-wing coup. Indeed, I am running to prevent it. We must make sure that we don't turn control of the state over to zealots who would bring us back to the Dark Ages on reproductive rights, gun control, gay rights, and immigration policy, while selling off our precious natural resources to the highest bidder!"

Arianna is up and running. You go, girlfriend.

By Tina Brown

Tina Brown's column appears every Thursday in Salon.

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