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How Arianna Huffington became Miss America Add to ...

The light bulbs are the first incongruity I spot waiting for Arianna Huffington in the photo-laden living room of her Brentwood home, the one she bought for $4.1-million (U.S.) as an infamous new divorcée in 1997.

The bulbs are old-time incandescents, not the compact fluorescents you might expect of someone who ran for governor of California against Arnold Schwarzenegger with the slogan "the hybrid vs. the Hummer."

There is a Prius in the driveway. But not much about Ms. Huffington's 8,000-square-foot mansion, with its maids aflutter, would suggest its owner is the author of a Naomi Klein-worthy polemic titled Third World America.

Ms. Huffington's 13th book is a cri de coeur bemoaning the evisceration of the U.S. middle class and America's slide toward Third World status. As she describes it to me, "that's really a country where there are the super-rich, who live behind gates with guards protecting their kids from kidnapping, and the rest of us."

The rest of us?

If the co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post seems so unself-conscious about lumping herself in with the proletariat - even though her own L.A. home is nestled safely behind electric gates - it is because she bleeds for the millions of formerly middle-class Americans, she says, who were left downtrodden by the Great Recession.

"There is a lot of scientific evidence that shows that empathy is as much a part of our DNA as our instincts for competition and survival," Ms. Huffington offers as she picks at a bowl of sunflower seeds with her long fingers and well-manicured nails. Besides, "the major turning points, the major reforms, have had as champions people who were not direct beneficiaries of them."

She rhymes off some of the biggies in American history - from the Emancipation Proclamation abolishing slavery to the Civil Rights Act dismantling segregation - as if to liken her crusade to those of Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson.

Restoring the American middle class, and outing the lobbyist-driven rot in Washington responsible for its decimation, is the current cause of Ms. Huffington's life. And, boy, does she know how to advance it.

Ubiquitous may not be a strong enough word to describe Ms. Huffington's profile as one of America's most visible and voluble intellectuals, and, more recently, Internet entrepreneurs.

She is the 28th-most-powerful woman in the world, according to Forbes. If that makes her less potent than, say, Lady Gaga (7th), she currently outranks The Daily Beast's Tina Brown (34th), her rival in the online diva stakes.



When she's not popping up on television news shows or in sitcoms (she voices a character on The Cleveland Show), Ms. Huffington is giving speeches in such unglamorous places as Louisville, Ky., and Buffalo. (Incidentally, she'll be in Toronto next week.)

"What she does is manage to infiltrate a number of different venues," notes Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. "There is very much this idea that she is a brand."

That Ms. Huffington has achieved this rarefied status amid an ever-fragmenting media universe says something, yes, about her tireless ambition and intellect. But her irresistibility as the exotic, Greek-born ex-wife of a rich (and closeted) Republican congressman hasn't hurt her profile, either.

Ever since Michael Huffington's $30-million self-financed (and unsuccessful) bid to win a California Senate seat in 1994, Arianna (née Stassinopoulos) has been an object of curiosity for America's chattering classes. The nasal accent, regal air and impeccable coif have only enhanced the fascination.

"How has this pair - an empty suit and a crackpot - risen so far?" the preternaturally cranky New York Times columnist Frank Rich wondered of Michael Huffington and his wife at the time. To find out, Mr. Rich suggested, "rent The Manchurian Candidate."

Back then, the Huffingtons were piggybacking on a conservative revival sweeping the nation. They were for slashing the welfare state and denying illegal immigrants in California access to publicly funded education and health services. Arianna also dabbled in some odd New Age ideas.

But that version of Ms. Huffington disappeared after the couple's 1997 divorce and Michael's avowal of his bisexuality. She kept her ex's surname, but embarked on a nearly 180-degree transformation into liberal commentator and new media mogul.

The Arianna Huffington I meet is nothing like the overbearing steamroller often portrayed by comedians. Now 60, with the pronounced features that come with age and Mediterranean genes, she exudes warmth.

"I'm Greek. You have to drink something," she pleads. "Water is not enough. How about wine?"



Though Ms. Huffington claims to eschew traditional political labels, she has positioned The Huffington Post as the go-to news site for progressives.

"Our mission is really to define what is in the public interest, beyond left and right," she says of the site she founded with media executive Ken Lerer in 2005. "We really believe that the way so many in the mainstream media divide every issue into left versus right is very obsolete."

The post-paradigm talk sounds like spin. HuffPo, as it is known, tends to run all-upper-case, boilerplate headlines with alacrity, giving the Pearl Harbor treatment to events and utterances that resonate with liberals. Ergo, "WARREN BUFFETT: TRICKLE-DOWN THEORY A FAILURE," as HuffPo blared last weekend.

"I was on then, yes," Ms. Huffington declares, establishing that her editorial responsibilities involve actual story handling and placement. "I like to take the Saturday nights and Sunday nights because I can do it from wherever I am, at a dinner party or whatever, with my BlackBerry."

Of course, HuffPo is more than a liberal organ. Only 20 per cent of its more than 24 million unique monthly visitors (making it second in online news traffic after The New York Times) come for the political fodder. Most check out the celebrity bloggers or enter one of its 26 sections, ranging from travel to divorce.

"The way the mainstream media suffer from attention deficit disorder, we suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder," Ms. Huffington asserts.

Still, HuffPo derives much of its traffic from one-off Google hits. Indeed, stories are structured to move to the top of search engine results. And they more often than not involve the "bright, shiny things" that Ms. Huffington criticizes the mainstream media so much for. Trivialities such as 29-year-old Illinois Republican congressman Aaron Schock's abs, or his gay icon status, are at least as common as more serious fare.

But HuffPo is evolving rapidly. Ms. Huffington has just hired two big names - Howard Fineman from Newsweek and Peter Goodman from The New York Times - to beef up the site's political and economic content, respectively. And then there are its citizen journalists.

"Huffington Post includes a very vibrant community," she declares proudly, pointing to the nearly four million comments posted monthly on the site. "As the news is increasingly social, people don't just want to consume it. … They want to be part of the story of their times."

The story of the times includes the rise of the Tea Party movement and Sarah Palin, both of which come in for disparaging criticism on HuffPo.

Ms. Huffington herself is kinder. For her, their popularity represents the legitimate defiance of a middle class that feels under assault.

"It's really an extension of people saying the elites have failed us, so let's try something else," she says of the Tea Partiers and former Alaska governor.



Ms. Huffington is particularly hard on Barack Obama for what she sees as his failure to appreciate the depth of middle-class angst sweeping the nation and his unwillingness to take on the lobbyists who conspire with lawmakers to concentrate American wealth in fewer and fewer hands.

"The fundamental problem here is Obama's reverence for the establishments," she laments, blaming the President for deferring to the Wall Street recruits in his administration by passing a loophole-filled financial reform bill and to his military advisers by escalating U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.



Third World America is Ms. Huffington's biopsy (her word) of her adopted country and it proposes a treatment, starting with a fundamental reform of campaign finance laws. Getting Congress to enact such a change seems like a liberal pipe dream.

"Reform always seems impossible until it happens," Ms. Huffington retorts, pointing to Lyndon Johnson's resistance to passing the Voting Rights Act until the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery marches forced him to act.







Ms. Huffington is continually reinventing herself. So a natural question is: How long will her current incarnation last?

There is speculation that she and her partners are preparing to sell HuffPo, or take it public, to cash in on the site's estimated market value of $100-million.

"It depends what you mean by ultimate," she responds when asked if selling out is indeed her ultimate goal. "I love what I'm doing. Whatever I want to do, I can do through The Huffington Post."

On that note, a housekeeper bearing a platter of food enters and Ms. Huffington slips back into Greek mother mode. The woman is clearly happiest when others are consuming whatever it is she is offering.

Arianna Huffington will be the keynote speaker at Canada's Most Powerful Women: Top 100 Awards Summit and Gala in Toronto on Monday.

Konrad Yakabuski is the chief political writer in The Globe and Mail's Washington bureau.

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