A Driving Force: Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington didn't like Washington's propaganda, so she decided to go out and make some of her own.

| Mon Apr. 7, 2003 3:00 AM EDT

Years of punditry have taught Arianna Huffington a thing or two about how to attract the media spotlight, and lately she's been putting her celebrity, wit, and mellifluous Greek accent to work in an attempt to mainstream traditionally liberal causes. Sick of Washington's carnal embrace of the Big Three automakers, Huffington launched the Detroit Project, a citizen campaign to reduce America's oil dependence. The centerpiece of the effort is a series of television commercials suggesting that SUV drivers are supporting terrorism ("This is George ... And these are the terrorists who get money every time George fills up his SUV"). The news media devoured the ad campaign (even though several networks refused to run the ads), further stirring the controversy over fuel-efficiency standards.

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Huffington also recently slammed guardians of the status quo with her ninth book, Pigs at the Trough: How Corporate Greed and Political Corruption are Undermining America. In it, she declares that "the frenzy of fraud perpetrated by our high-flying corporate chieftains have left America's 401ks and pension plans in ruins and more than 8 million people out of work." She spoke to MotherJones.com in the days just before the US invasion of Iraq.

MotherJones.com: First, let's talk about the SUV ads. Clearly, that was a rhetorical move; you're not really trying to indict SUV drivers for funding al Qaeda.

Arianna Huffington: Right. There seems to be an epidemic of literal-mindedness at the moment. I wonder how people would've handled Jonathan Swift's Modest Proposal, which is for me the ultimate in using satire as a powerful weapon for social change. It's really irreverence with a purpose, and I kind of revere that.

MJ: So if that wasn't your objective, what was?

AH: The objective was to start a national conversation about gas-guzzling cars, fuel efficiency, our oil dependence, and our national security. I don't think anybody would dispute that we did. And beyond starting a national conversation, we were very effective at bringing about real change. Just to give you a few examples, legislation was introduced by Barbara Boxer to end the tax credit being given for massive SUVs, which is an insane public policy. Legislation was introduced by Dianne Feinstein to close the SUV loophole that allows SUVs to be less fuel-efficient than cars. Governor Romney of Massachusetts is looking at having state employees use different cars than SUVs. Governor Pataki is closing the tax credit loophole at the state level. And then of course we have the response from Detroit. Rob Lutz [of General Motors] was quoted in The New York Times saying "We can no longer fly in the face of public opinion," and both GM and Ford have been putting forward proposals for bringing out hybrid cars. At the moment, the only way to buy a hybrid car is to buy Japanese.

MJ: Like the Prius ...

AH: Which is what I drive.

MJ: I understand the networks refused to run your ads.

AH: Right, they never ran them at all. But what was really amazing is that we must have gotten millions in free advertising, because the ads ran endlessly on news shows. They debuted on the NBC Nightly News, and they ran on headline news in rotation. They were on the homepage of AOL, I think for three days. It was amazing.

MJ: I've heard that you're producing another round of ads.

AH: Yes, we're in the process of looking at scripts. Since most stations didn't run our ads, we have money in the bank. I think that the decision about when to go on the air again is dependent on the war. We are all kind of waiting to see what happens.

MJ: How does it depend on the war?

AH: Well, since our message is very much based on the national security argument, rather than the environmental argument, it's going to be very relevant to see what happens with oil prices, with Iraq. We also want to make sure we run them when there is some media oxygen available.

MJ: Speaking of the war, in a recent column, you quote Lawrence Lindsey saying "the successful prosecution of the war would be good for the economy," and suggest that's part of the motivation for the campaign in Iraq. How would that work? Would a war really be good for our economy?

AH: The point I'm making is very linked to Dick Cheney and the fact that he was Defense Secretary during the Gulf War. After the Gulf War, Halliburton subsidiaries did 73 million dollars worth of business with Iraq in equipment they supplied to rebuild the oil field infrastructure that was destroyed. It's kind of nice business: first you destroy them and then you rebuild them. And not only did Dick Cheney do business with Iraq, but he denied that he did this business during the 2000 campaign, and he's never been really held accountable.

No one has asked him why he called for the end of sanctions after the Gulf War, as late as 2000, if Saddam Hussein is such a threat to the United States. What changed? The point I'm making is the broader point I also make in Pigs at the Trough -- that so many corporate leaders would sacrifice anything for the sake of the bottom line.

MJ: You're also working on a project called Partnership for a Poll-Free America, which suggests that Americans who are called by pollsters refuse to participate. Is that campaign also tongue-in-cheek?

AH: No. I think that these things are all important. The SUV campaign is very important. The polling campaign is very important. On the website, in my writing, and in TV campaigns, I use satirical means to important ends. You see, you can convince people if you also entertain them. In some of the sidebars in my book, I translate all the billions of dollars that have been stolen from taxpayers, investors and the general public into what could have been bought with them. Some of the things are serious, you know, how many Habitat for Humanity homes or how many meals for homeless children. And some of them are funny, like how many nights you could spend with Julia Roberts at the rate she was charging in Pretty Woman. Mixing it up like that, I've found, can be a very powerful tool for getting people's attention, and getting people to act on their outrage, which for me is the most important thing.

MJ: So, if Poll-Free America is a serious campaign, how would refusing pollsters force our leaders to lead, as your website says?

AH: Right now most of our political leaders are spineless and addicted to following public opinion polls. And yet, the secret of pollsters is that response rates are down to 35 percent. Most people refuse to talk to pollsters, and yet upon this small and unrepresentative minority, we base an enormous amount of our public policy. I'm arguing that, since we can't do anything about reducing the demand for polls, we should do something about drying up the supply. It's an easy, small way to participate in taking back democracy, refusing to talk to pollsters. Of course, you can talk to them socially.

MJ: So we shouldn't shun them completely.

AH: Just when they call you in the middle of dinner.

MJ: But, if your audience, which I assume to be people who believe there needs to be a change in the status quo, if these people refuse pollsters, wouldn't that skew polls even more, so we end up with politicians responding to an even more unrepresentative minority?

AH: No, because polling is not a way to run a country. Just imagine if polling had been prevalent during Abraham Lincoln's time when the Emancipation Proclamation was pretty unpopular, you can just imagine Dick Morris walking into the Oval Office and saying, "You can't sign this! The majority of the people are against it. Why don't you sign something everyone can be in favor of like Secretary's Day?" Or, like with Clinton, school uniforms.

MJ: As far as your own politics, things seem to have shifted. You used to be a leading conservative pundit, after all. Things are changing.

AH: Well, first of all, things aren't changing, they've changed. The change was not as drastic as people think, because I was always a social moderate on things like choice and gun control and gay rights. It was really on the role of government that the shift has happened. I was living under this illusion that the private sector would step up to the plate and provide the money and time to solve a lot of the social problems we were facing. But the truth is, that wasn't happening. When I created a small non-profit called the Center for Effective Compassion to work on that, it just wasn't happening. That is really what changed my views on the subject. First, that we needed the broad power of government appropriations to address these problems and second, that we need government oversight.

In fact, through the nineties, a lot of the checks and balances that had been established during the New Deal to make sure the free market was not rigged, were dismantled. Now we have overwhelming evidence, a fresh one every day, that we've become two Americas: an Upstairs America that operates under different rules and laws than a Downstairs America.

MJ: I read a debate between you and Mario Cuomo, from back in 1995 ...

AH: Oh my God.

MJ: ... which would have been before this change.

AH: Yes, absolutely.

MJ: Then, you talked about how the problem with government-based programs for social change is that they're impersonal. Do you still believe that?

AH: Well, there's no question that social policy requires a maximum amount of participation by citizens. We can't just delegate our compassion, we have to get involved. There's no question that this is what would create the healthiest democracy.

MJ: You've written that becoming a mother was one of the experiences that radicalized your views. With all of this political and corporate corruption going on, what kinds of people do you want your daughters exposed to? Are there any public figures they can look up to?

AH: I'd like to expose them to people who are activists, who want to change the world, who don't accept the current reality as given. I'd like to expose them to people who may not be famous but who are doing incredible work, like Debrah Constance, who runs A Place Called Home in South Central Los Angeles and who works with over 2,000 at-risk children. There's a place I've taken my daughters called Children Helping Poor and Homeless People, where they don't just help prepare meals, but they also learn about the realities. You know, it's amazing, when you expose children to things like this, that there are 1 million homeless children in the world, it just has a chilling effect on them, because they have not been desensitized. For them, those are children, like them, who don't have a home. It's amazing -- I watch the news with them a lot, and Isabella, during the Trent Lott thing, she said to me, "Mommy, how can they keep him?" You know, before it was obvious that they wouldn't keep him. It's like, children cannot imagine somebody saying something like that.

MJ: Is there anyone directly involved in politics that is a worthy role model for your daughters?

AH: Well, I don't want my daughters to be politicians. I want them to be part of a movement that will change politics in America, and will change America. I don't believe it's going to come through elected officials. I mean, that's why at the end of my book I talk with some activist groups that people can get involved with and even regarding the 2004 election, I tell my friends, "Hold off endorsing someone, wait for the next six or nine months. Work instead to build this movement for real fundamental change in this country, and for social justice. And then whoever you back is going to be operating in a different environment."

MJ: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

AH: I just want to say how optimistic I am despite everything. Doing this college tour and speaking every day to different groups, I feel there is a real hunger out that I have not seen before, and I've been speaking ever since I moved to this country in 1980. There is a lot of anger, at all the ways that the public has been screwed up, the billions of dollars that have been lost in savings and 401Ks, and it makes it seem really real, to see that these are actual victims of crimes. It affected people's lives, people's futures, people's dreams. And people want to get even, I mean, they're mad. And when you see that and when you also see the phenomenal number protesting the war, before the war has begun, you see that this is a sea change. When you see the response to the Detroit Project -- if we had come out with it six months ago I don't think that would have happened. I quote Henry Blodget [the Merrill Lynch analyst] in the book saying "I pluck the strings of the Zeitgeist," well I think now, the Zeitgeist has turned.