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The Soul Mate With All the Ideas: Mrs. Huffington

<i> Stephen Games is a British journalist and a former documentary maker for the BBC</i>

Is Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington an asset or a liability to her husband’s U.S. Senate campaign?

When Rep. Mike Huffington can’t get to a political rally, which is often, she’ll go instead. She has already spoken at more candidate forums than he, and she’s invariably better received. Two weeks ago, for example, Mrs. Huffington’s schedule included speeches at the Santa Barbara Yacht Club, a church mixer in Fresno and a Building Industry Assn. meeting near Riverside. In one afternoon, she addressed a dining club at the Biltmore Hotel, then visited a food project for the poor in South-Central L.A.

Indeed, Mrs. Huffington has become so involved in her husband’s bid for power that she now runs her own life from his campaign headquarters in Costa Mesa and takes part in all his strategy meetings. Some say--but she denies--that it was her idea he should run for the Senate.

She has no political experience, however, and uses her speaking engagements to hand down conservative New Age wisdom to audiences. A media child (her father was a radical Greek publisher), she hosts her own cable-TV chat show and uses it to counter what she calls “the parading of the morally deformed” on Oprah and Donahue.

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In a previous life, the woman who may become the most powerful wife in California was Arianna Stassinopoulos. Brought from Greece to England when she was 16, she began the 1970s as one of Cambridge University’s more glamorous students and ended it as one of London’s more exotic BBC personalities and litterateurs.

Her British credentials helped set her up as a society hostess when she moved to New York in 1981. She brings to her marriage a cultural fluency that earns dividends at the dinner table and she wins compliments on her beauty, usually described as “statuesque.”

She was always ambitious but owes her American success to a borrowed strategic insight. In London, she had courted powerful, elderly male friends from the chattering classes. In New York, reportedly on the advice of her publisher, Lord George Weidenfeld, she targeted key women instead.

She befriended Ann Getty, wife of oil-heir Gordon, who, in 1985, fixed her up with Huffington (“I’ve met the man you’re going to marry,” she called from Tokyo one day.) The next year, Ann paid for their exotic wedding, at a cost of $150,000-plus.

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Stassinopoulos has reveled in her new incarnation. She had drawn acclaim from the wrong critics for her books, which included a right-wing attack on Germaine Greer’s feminism, a biography of Maria Callas, which led to a plagiarism lawsuit and an out-of-court settlement, and a reactionary revaluation of Picasso’s art based on his treatment of women. Since then, she has moved into a world that values a pastel wardrobe and big hair.

The British have watched her career with amazement. She now has a multimillion-dollar lifestyle in homes in Beverly Hills, Santa Barbara and Washington. People also seem to take her more seriously here than in London, where the satirical magazine Private Eye called her “The Greek Pudding.”

She has the taste and regal manner to carry herself and her husband among America’s heaven-blessed. The downside of making it into Washington’s aristocracy, however, is that she is now being intensely scrutinized by the media.

While she was a player in the literary world, the English merely found her a figure of fun--delightful and high-minded but not always profound. Now that she has moved into politics, U.S. journalists are asking whether she’s dangerous.

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The problem is twofold. For more than 20 years, she has been a member of a Santa Monica-based church called the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness (MSIA, pronounced “Messiah”). The church’s leader, John-Roger, has been written about in the press as a free-spending Rasputin, charges he has denied.

In the mid-'80s, as a minister of the church, Stassinopoulos recruited high-society acolytes for John-Roger and praised him for helping people to “wake up to the spirit inside.” She says she cannot understand why John-Roger, “a friend,” has been attacked.

The second problem is that she prefers spirituality to politics--and says so. Her new book “The Fourth Instinct” (after survival, sex and power) is about finding God through altruism, and the extent of her political thought seems to be that do-gooding brings spiritual rewards and should replace the welfare state.

This narcissistic pop-theology speaks more to the inner fulfillment of do-gooders than to the physical needs of the done-good-to. It was welcomed by health writer Deepak Chopra and Jonas Salk, whose wife--Picasso’s former mistress Francoise Gilot--was the source for much of the Picasso book.

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But it yields little about whether Stassinopoulos understands the political institution she wants to enter.

When asked if her goal is the White House, she usually sidesteps the question (she never denies it) by talking of being on a mission that transcends politics. Even her staff cannot say if a given appearance is going to be a campaign speech for her husband or a book promotion for her own ideas. Yet Huffington calls her his soul mate and doesn’t seem to see her as a risk.

Some have written of her warmly or merely scoffed at her opportunism. (“I think of that thing inside John Hurt in the movie ‘Alien,’ but with better hair,” said an interviewee in a Washington Post feature titled “Her Brains, His Money,” adding: “In Michael, she’s found a host”).

As the stakes get higher, however, so do the fears. Bob Colacello, who wrote about the couple in Vanity Fair in 1986, thinks that Mrs. H is either sincere in her New Age beliefs or clever, but not both. “My real issue with her is that I don’t understand what her spiritualism is about and it frightens me to think that (it) could influence our government,” Colacello told The Times earlier this year.

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An article in last month’s Mirabella also contrasted her professed anti-materialism with her continuing fondness for wealthy friends. (She now says that the vacuity of the rich helped shape her present insights--a statement that may be truer that she had meant.)

So far, her audiences have indulged her. Her condescension touches a chord with the well-heeled, who like her idea of politics-as-self-help, because it lets government off the hook. But there’s a sense that her media honeymoon is coming to an end, and that Huffington will have to distance himself from his wife’s agenda if he doesn’t want her to become his Achilles’ heel.

“I don’t know where she begins and he ends,” says a member of Dianne Feinstein’s staff. “He seems to embrace her philosophy. They talk about out-of-body experiences, walking on coals and buying crystals as a way to solve problems. The average working family wouldn’t know what this was about.”

Except, perhaps, in California, where there’s a market for the unusual. Maybe she’s an asset, after all.*

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