04 Jun 2009

“Like the Chameleon on the Aspen”

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Isaac Chottinger, in the New Republic, takes the occasion of the publication of her new book attacking conservatives, to describe, at length and with some visible astonishment, the strange political odyssey of Arianna Huffington. The female Maecenas of today’s Blogospheric left was, not long ago, herself a loud and passionate conservative.

(Two decades ago) Huffington began writing a right-wing syndicated column. She fervently supported the Contract with America and the rise of Newt Gingrich, while at the same time preaching compassion for the poor. She became a figure in mid-’90s Washington, using her new megaphone, and her dining table, to speak out more loudly on the same issues that had occupied her for years. Reading Huffington’s columns from this period is disagreeable, because her mixture of spiritualism, libertarianism, New Right dogmatism, and concern for the downtrodden does not amount to anything coherent. …

It is hard to know how seriously to consider Huffington’s work in those years. She was a vocal critic of Great Society efforts to address social problems, but her anti-government instincts prevented her from articulating any sort of tangible blueprint that addressed real-world conditions. … One is struck, again, by the discrepancy between the mediocrity of her work and the skill with which she consolidated her fame.

As the right’s revolution began to cool, Huffington’s revolutionary fervor started to wane, too. The Huffingtons divorced in 1997, and the following year Michael Huffington announced that he was bisexual. In 1998, Huffington published a book called Greetings from the Lincoln Bedroom, a lame anti-Clinton satire–Huffington is painfully unfunny–that nicely coincided with a general disgust with Washington. Her columns also became increasingly, and shrewdly, non-partisan. By the time Gingrich resigned as party leader in 1998, it was clear that Huffington was ready for her next move. After the GOP lost seats in the midterm elections in 1998, Huffington concluded that Gingrich and company had failed because they had abandoned their agenda of, in Gingrich’s words, “coming to terms with what’s happening to the poorest Americans,” an electoral analysis that at least had the advantage of being original.

And so she made herself over as an enemy of power, a tribune of the people, an A-list populist. In 2000, Huffington published How to Overthrow the Government, which urged Americans to rise up and take back Washington from two corrupt political parties. Her newest campaign was perfectly timed to tap into the disappointment emanating from the dreariness of the presidential campaign of 2000. In a year in which Ralph Nader received almost 3 percent of the vote, and in which both major party candidates were neither much liked nor admired, Huffington held “shadow” political conventions and managed to play to the general anomie. Her criticism of the Clinton years evolved from concerns about the president’s personal failings to a critique of his policies from the left. And she continued to demonstrate a rare gift for articulating the prevailing mood without ever saying anything especially probing or memorable. In 2003 there appeared Pigs at the Trough, a slightly better written jeremiad against political corruption, which was blurbed by John McCain, then Washington’s reigning “maverick.” That same year Huffington ran as a populist in a gubernatorial recall election in California, and succeeded only in seeming ridiculous. The election was ultimately won by a celebrity much more famous than she was.

By 2004, the Iraq invasion was starting to look like something less than a brilliant success, and liberal disgust with the Bush administration was reaching its zenith. Meanwhile the rise of the so-called “netroots,” coupled with grave concern about the possibility of a second Bush term, had destroyed almost all momentum for insurgent political movements. The only threat to the status quo could come from John Kerry and a Democratic Party whose principal argument was that they were better at Washington than Bush was. This was the year that saw the publication of Fanatics and Fools, Huffington’s “game plan for winning back America,” which signaled that she had made her peace with the Democratic Party. Many of the book’s problems–particularly its over-the-top criticisms of Schwarzenegger–were owed to her old habit of pushing any argument a demagogic step too far, of wanting too much to be noticed. There was something almost comical about the insistence of this sudden liberal that she be regarded as some kind of leader of American liberalism–that her latest incarnation be treated as her whole story.

Right Is Wrong, Huffington’s newest book, is a useful document of her current version, in which progressive politics seem to come so naturally to her that one almost forgets that she has been traveling the whole time. The result is a book that is less genuine and more tiresome.

slideshow of Ariana over the years

One might describe the opportunism of Arianna as John Randolph of Roanoke described that of his cousin Edmund Randolph: “like the chameleon on the aspen, ever trembling, ever changing.”

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