Arianna Stassinopolous Huffington was framed in American flags.
To her right drooped Old Glory. To her left, the California bear. Before her was splayed a veritable cornucopia of Orange County Young Republicans.
Summoning all the wit and finesse she had earned long ago as head of the Cambridge University debating society, the elegant author, socialite and congressional spouse set to work on her unsuspecting audience. Her mission: to nudge the Grand Old Party into examining its collective soul.
And, oh yes, help her husband, Michael, win Democrat Dianne Feinstein's Senate seat in November.
"It is not enough for (President) Clinton to fail for us to succeed," she said to the hushed hotel function room in Costa Mesa, the heart of California Republican-land and home to Michael Huffington for Senate headquarters. "Ultimately, we need to provide the American people with an alternate vision."
Huffington, 43, statuesque in a Carolina Herrera pleated brown suit and auburn coif, laid out her case. Cribbing from her startling speech--"Can Conservatives Have a Social Conscience?"--that gently chastened a National Review magazine conference in Washington a year ago, Huffington reminded her fellow social policy critics that if government were to drop the welfare ball, they would all do well to pick it up. In Huffington's ideal future, a "critical mass" of spiritually inclined citizens would succeed where government had failed, volunteering time and money en masse to care for the tired and poor.
"I see it as a scientific equivalent of grace," she said in velvet tones laced with hints of her native Greece. "We do our part and God meets us halfway. That's why I'm a conservative. Because conservatives believe in the individual."
The wife of the Santa Barbara Republican opened the floor to questions. Despite her inch-by-inch, speech-by-speech campaign aimed at nothing less than a spiritual overhaul of the Republican Party and eventually the country, her speech whizzed by the kempt heads of her audience. Instead of marching toward the millennium as spiritual soldiers defending a shrinking government, they seemed like holdouts from the Me Generation.
What was Michael's position on federal taxes? And the National Endowment for the Arts? And, from a young Republican in a tight blond bun, what does he plan to do about illegal immigration--"since you're an immigrant"?
"Obviously, people are preoccupied with the obvious political issues," Huffington said later. "I think when you expand the political debate to areas which are not the traditional issues of crime, economy and jobs, they're more likely to ask questions about what they're familiar with.
"But I don't see it as an indication that they're not listening. I intend to spend the next months drumming that message up and down the state."
Some observers believe the Huffingtons' sights include far more than California. Noting Michael's quick bid for the Senate after less than two years in the House, they speculate that the couple has its eyes on the ultimate political prize--the presidency.
"What is interesting is the way people think that you want to be in the White House," Huffington said in an interview, perched on a pastel couch in their L.A. pied a terre. "To me, that is a very small ambition. There are many people who have been in the White House and have achieved nothing dramatic. What we are talking about is a crusade, which is so much bigger than being in the White House . . . to achieve this critical mass that can change our country.
"In that sense, my quote unquote ambitions are a lot larger than the ones people are assigning to me, and larger in the sense that they're not personal."
If Huffington fails to enlist a country's worth of eager recruits, it won't be for want of trying. In May, Simon & Schuster will publish her manifesto, "The Fourth Instinct: The Call of the Soul." Huffington's sixth book argues that big government cheats people out of the spiritual rewards of giving to the needy.
The book, a cable-TV show, as well as the recruitment soirees she calls "critical mass" dinners and the Senate race are the latest salvos in Huffington's longstanding and sometimes controversial campaign to mesh ostensible opposites--spirituality and the halls of power.
Her latest bout is winning praise from fellow conservatives and spiritual leaders. Film critic Michael Medved, who appeared on National Empowerment Television's "Critical Mass" to discuss Hollywood as an enemy of traditional values, applauded her efforts to be "inclusive in assembling this critical mass."
"She's being inclusive in the political spectrum and within the religious world. I think she's going out of her way to work together with people from every kind of faith and community rather than rooting it firmly in one aspect of that community or another," he said.
But Huffington raised eyebrows in an earlier campaign she waged on behalf of New Age leader John-Roger, the former Rosemead schoolteacher and founder of Insight and the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness (MSIA). Huffington, herself an MSIA minister, tapped her social contacts in the mid-'80s to woo high society proponents to John-Roger's cause, holding recruitment dinners that sandwiched socialites between acolytes.
"I had him thrust upon me by her," nationally syndicated columnist Liz Smith said. "He really sort of gave me the creeps. He wanted to lay hands on me because I had a headache and it was very dismaying and embarrassing to me. And also I thought he was a fake."
In those days, Huffington publicly reveled in her connection to John-Roger. In a 1985 article for Interview magazine, she wrote: "He dealt in the only thing that I was really interested in: helping people wake up to the spirit inside themselves, to their natural knowing and inner wisdom. I bought his books (ranging from 'The Inner Worlds of Meditation' to 'Sex, Spirit and You'); I subscribed to his monthly discourses; I went to meditation retreats."
John-Roger, whose foundation is based in Santa Monica, declared himself the embodiment of a Christlike entity called "Mystical Traveler Consciousness." But in the late '80s, he came under fire in the press for allegedly sexually seducing followers with spiritual promises, being hypocritical about the vow of poverty that kept him from paying taxes and being cavalier with church funds. He denied the charges.
Both Huffingtons now soft-pedal Arianna's connection to John-Roger, whom she met in London in 1973. She says that they see each other socially and that she last took a seminar a year ago, "although I would be glad to take one if I had the time."
"John-Roger is a friend," said Huffington, a member of the Greek Orthodox Church. "And I get a lot of value from his seminars and his books. Why he's so attacked and why people are trying to present him as some kind of guru figure, I really don't know."
Michael Huffington, 46, an Episcopalian who doesn't share her interest in John-Roger, said: "It was before I met her, so I wasn't knowledgeable. I think John-Roger is a friend of hers. That's about all I really know about it."
In fact, while "The Fourth Instinct" quotes myriad sources, nowhere does John-Roger's name appear. Huffington says he influenced her book "no more than hundreds of people, ranging from Jung and the Bible to friends who have been on some kind of spiritual path." In addition to John-Roger, she has befriended Werner Erhard and sampled est.
Republicans perceive her critical mass campaign as compatible with mainstream conservative views.
Linking spirituality with politics "is a two-edged sword," said Howard Hull, former president of the Orange County Young Republicans. "It can be linked to extremism and linked to moderation. Moderation is, 'I may be very religious, I may be Christian, but I have Muslim friends and friends of the Jewish faith.' That's no problem. Extremism is, 'It's my way or the highway.' But I don't see that at all. Her views are right along party lines."
Nonetheless, questions about Huffington's connection to John-Roger linger in the press as the couple raises its political sights and stakes.
Bob Colacello, who investigated their relationship for Vanity Fair in 1986, said: "If she's sincere in her New Age beliefs, then she's not very bright, and if she is very bright, then I don't see how she could be sincere in believing some of the things that she claims to believe. To me, that's the paradox of Arianna Stassinopolous Huffington.
"My real issue with her as a political figure, as someone who is married to a man with great political ambitions--and they both have admitted they influence each other tremendously, as do every husband and wife--is I don't understand what her spiritualism is about, and it frightens me to think that this kind of fuzzy but all-encompassing spiritualism could have an influence on our politics, on our government."
Huffington's spiritual yearnings go way back to her childhood in Greece. She says she remembers praying to the Virgin Mary unbidden at the age of 3. Thus began a spiritual journey that took 16-year-old Arianna to Shantaniketan University, outside Calcutta, where she studied comparative religions.
The next year, she moved with her mother--divorced from her journalist father--to England to prepare for university entrance exams. At Cambridge, Arianna Stassinopolous was a star, making media waves as the first foreigner and third woman to head the Cambridge Union--the same year another female foreigner, Benazir Bhutto, headed the rival Oxford debate team.
For her farewell debate, she skewered late-'70s feminism for ignoring "a woman's special needs" for children and family. Her televised address prompted English publisher Reg Davis-Poynter to offer her a book deal.
Considered an answer to "The Female Eunuch," her 1973 book was called "The Female Woman." She was attacked for being anti-feminist, even though she supported equal rights and work opportunities for women.
The first book also made her a celebrity author fresh out of school. And she says she was on book tour in Detroit when she was struck by the emptiness of her early success.
"Everything went wrong. I was on my own. I got to the hotel, and there was a line of 200 GIs checking in, so I had to wait. Then I got into my room, and it was the tiniest little room, a postage stamp that smelled of cigarette smoke, and there I was. I had nothing to do that night and I had to leave at 5 in the morning to go on an early morning talk show, and I suddenly felt this total, utter depression and despair. What am I doing here?"
She returned from her tour, drew the drapes of her London apartment and embarked on a long water fast--"mostly because I so wanted to touch the spirit, to be filled by it, that anything that was not spirit or about spirit was an encumbrance," she writes in "The Fourth Instinct."
She ultimately realized that starvation was no solution, "although not before I could, blindfolded, tell the difference between sipsful of the various brands of bottled water I had in my flat."
In 1979, she published her second and least successful book, the scholarly "After Reason." Although the difficult book was little read, it held the seeds of her current campaign. In it, she argued that 20th-Century prosperity failed to satisfy mankind's deepest needs for meaning, and that a spiritual revolution was in the offing.
"I saw myself more as a polemicist," she said.
But her career reputation was soon sealed as a biographer. Already a fixture of English society, her connections led to the book contract that changed her as a writer. Her friend, publisher George Weidenfeld, suggested that she write a biography of Maria Callas soon after the singer's death, partly because the two Greek women bore a certain resemblance.
The 1981 book, "Maria Callas: The Woman Behind the Legend," was an international bestseller, displaying her talent for unearthing the stormy personal details of her subjects' lives. Her Callas biography stated that the singer's longtime lover, Aristotle Onassis, was planning to divorce Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, whom he called "cold-hearted and shallow," shortly before his death.
She went to New York to promote "Maria Callas" and immediately felt as though she had arrived home. She settled there in the early '80s and took the town by social storm.
"I definitely had a very social 3 1/2 years. They gave me the sobriquet of socialite and I earned it!" she said with a laugh.
Barbara Walters served as her bridesmaid and is godmother to her oldest daughter. "The word special is extremely overused, but she's a very special person," Walters said of Huffington. "She is very brilliant, very sensitive. She's wonderful looking. I feel she has a conscience and a caring."
One person's special person is another one's social climber, and Huffington has been criticized for being socially ambitious. Still, even her critics say they like her.
"I think Arianna became very famous very young," said John O'Sullivan, editor of the National Review and a friend dating back to her London days. "She conquered London in the '70s, New York in the '80s and is now doing the same on the West Coast in the '90s. People with this kind of drive and success are always going to incite envy, but she's basically good-natured and level-headed. She's never been deceived by success and put off by envy."
Said journalist Colacello: "I think she's a highly desirable dinner-party guest. She's intelligent. She's articulate. She's beautiful. She knows how to really focus in on what the other person is saying. She's a great, great flatterer and we've all been seduced by it.
"I think she's a fascinating character and I wouldn't be surprised if she does reach the top or get pretty damn near to it. Because she is relentless. Because she does have the discipline of a religious zealot. Because she has a very rich husband. Because she's smart."
In 1984, Huffington moved to Beverly Hills. An important California friend was Francoise Gilot, wife of Jonas Salk and Pablo Picasso's former longtime mistress and the mother of two of his children. Huffington had sought her out for her new biography of Picasso, and her scathing memories of abuse helped fuel the fire that swirled around the author's 1988 book, "Picasso: Creator and Destroyer."
The critics' reaction was ferocious.
Newsweek called it "one-sided and hate-filled" and the New York Times sniffed: "Mrs. Huffington writes about Picasso's life as though she were breathlessly narrating a trashy novel."
Huffington seems to relish the furor. "I think the reaction went much deeper than just challenging an idol like Picasso," she said. "I sum up what I believe about art, and why I don't believe Picasso was as great an artist as Shakespeare and Mozart and Rembrandt.
"For me, really great art transcends the darkness, but if you look at a lot of Picasso's late art or if you look at Francis Bacon, it's like the crucifixion without the resurrection. Everything is dark."
The most influential friend from that period may have the socially prominent Ann Getty, another Weidenfeld contact. She took on the project of getting the thirtysomething Stassinopolous married, and during a 1985 flight drew up a list of prospects for her friend, among them conductor Claudio Abbado.
A week later, Getty met Michael Huffington in Tokyo at a board meeting of the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.
"Michael thought his idea of who he was going to marry was somebody blond and in her early 20s and willing to have five children. He said to her, 'You're so wonderful. Do you have any daughters?'
"And Ann said, 'I don't have any daughters, but I have a great friend. She's not blond and she's not in her 20s.' And she called me and told me she had met the man I was going to marry."
Getty orchestrated a three-day blind date--with other people, including Huffington's friend, Dole Chairman David Murdock. They attended the San Francisco Opera, threading the days with lunches and dinners.
"I immediately saw her as my soul mate," Huffington said. "When we met, I said, 'What's the most important thing in your life?' She said, 'God.' "
They married seven months later--in April, 1986--and Vanity Fair called their Park Avenue wedding "the one people are still talking about" in a banner wedding year that included Prince Andrew's and Caroline Kennedy's.
The 400-person guest list consisted of a melange of high society and John-Roger followers. Huffington wore a Galanos dress variously reported as costing $18,000 to $35,000, and she was flanked by bridesmaids who included Walters and Lucky Roosevelt, President Reagan's White House chief of protocol.
The reception was testimony to the bride's talent for friendship--Getty paid for it. Henry Kissinger has been widely quoted as saying the wedding had "everything except an Aztec sacrificial fire dance," although Huffington says that was apocryphal.
Michael Huffington's family had been prominent in Houston, where his father, Roy, made the family fortune by founding an oil company, Roy M. Huffington Inc., a.k.a. Huffco. The Huffington coffers have been estimated at $350 million.
Huffington says she sees no contradiction between living a life that's both luxurious and spiritual: "I don't think having a beautiful home or having beautiful things is a problem in itself. Far from it. It's the difference between being in the background of your life or being in the foreground."
The couple settled in a $4-million Italian villa in Montecito. They've stopped giving interviews there in the wake of accusations that the freshman congressman bought his seat by outspending his opponent, nine-term Republican Rep. Bob Lagomarsino. Huffington spent $3 million on the primary, more than any other congressional candidate in the country's history. Huffington denies that the home has become a political liability.
"Look at Ross Perot," she said. "He does all his interviews in his home or his private plane. I think Perot used his wealth to show he's independent, to show he can't be bought, that he's not in politics for reasons of personal gain. So it's not a campaign consideration."
Indeed, the Huffingtons don't at all mind Michael's sobriquet, "Perot-by-the-Sea." With their voluntarism spin on it, they've founded the Partnership for the Children of Santa Barbara, which provides medical care, partly with the help of Michael's first-year congressional salary--$133,600.
Huffington says her concern for children stems in part from her love for her own--Christina, 4 1/2, and Isabella, 2 1/2. She says motherhood has been a profoundly transforming experience. And in "The Fourth Instinct," she reveals that she had an out-of-body experience a few hours after Christina's birth:
"We put her in a crib next to my bed. A few moments later, after everyone had left the room, I began trembling convulsively. . . . And then my body was no longer shaking. I had left it. I was looking down at myself, at Christina, at the tuberoses on the night stand, at the entire room.
"I had no fear at all. . . . I knew I would return. And I was being washed in a sense of enormous well-being and strength. It was as if the curtain of heaven had been pulled back to give me a glimpse of wholeness: birth, life and death--and seeing them all at once, I could accept them all."
Although Huffington largely disappeared from public view as a new mother, some people have tagged her as the engine for Michael's political ambitions. Michael denies the scuttlebutt.
"I chuckle," he said. "First of all, if one looks back at the record, which people don't do, the first time I walked precincts in politics was in '68, when Reagan was running for President. I was a student senator at Stanford and co-president of the senior class.
"It's a naive statement or an uninformed statement that Arianna got me to run for office. I've been doing that since I was 20 years old."
Now their respective campaigns have become one. "Michael is helping me," Huffington said, by introducing legislation this month to make volunteering more attractive, by eliminating the tax rule that says the first 3% of income donated to charity is not deductible and by giving people minimum-wage-equivalent tax breaks for donating their time.
Although they both talk the spirituality-in-politics talk, Huffington says she would carry on her crusade with or without her husband's political platform.
"If you had to convince everybody, it would not be doable," she said. "It's not an intellectual convincing. It's more like a catching. Catch the spirit of it. Then if enough people are doing this, it will spread like a positive infection.
"If you're doing your part, and I do my part, and So-and-So does his little part, the whole thing mysteriously--that's the thing--beyond logic, will change everything."