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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?"

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