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Arianna’s World : With Her ‘Brown Bag’ Lunches and Plans for a ‘Beat the Press’ Show, Mike Huffington’s Wife Crusades in Washington for GOP Causes

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Mike Huffington may have spent $27.5 million of his own money in his failed bid for the U.S. Senate, but that did not prevent him and his wife, Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington, from returning to Washington.

While former congressman Huffington cultivates a low profile in the labyrinthine social world of Washington, his wife is visibly riding on the Republican tsunami that swept over the nation’s capital in November.

Welcome to Arianna’s world, a constellation of right-wing thinkers and politicians accented with New Age activists, a sprinkling of reconstituted liberals and some who refuse to be classified at all.

Immersed in a flurry of activity, Arianna Huffington is putting the finishing touches on a dinner scheduled for Tuesday, featuring House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

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She hopes the dinner will raise about $600,000 to benefit the nonprofit National Empowerment Television, the broadcaster of Gingrich’s weekly lecture, “Progress Report,” and sponsor of his “Renewing American Civilization.” NET also once ran Arianna Huffington’s now-discontinued program, “Critical Mass.”

Price per couple for a dinner with the speaker: $50,000.

Huffington has also signed on as a senior fellow with the Progress and Freedom Foundation, a think tank closely allied to Gingrich, and she is busy developing a television program called “Beat the Press,” featuring herself as a self-styled investigative media critic.

The show would use video clips and commentary to chronicle her discoveries of press blunders and inaccuracies. Guests who have been made “victims” by media harpies will drop by to tell their side of the story, she said.

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First media victim guest: Fellow Republican and political soul mate Newt Gingrich.

Huffington takes offense at a New Yorker article likening Gingrich’s speech-making style to that of the Ayatollah Khomeini, and she intends to set the record straight. For “Beat the Press” she has edited a video segment of the Ayatollah sermonizing about “streets filled with blood” and combined it with tape of Gingrich talking about welfare.

“Satire is a great way to show bias,” she said.

As part of her critique of the American media, she plans to feature a segment of good news. “What the media missed this week,” she said. “It’s so much more important than some little law that’s passed.”

Although she has completed much of the pilot, there are no takers for the program yet, but she has an eye on selling the idea to network television or for syndication.

There is also a new book project, Huffington’s fifth in 20 years.

This one recounts the Republican revolution with frequent asides about her husband’s recent defeat.

“It’s about three revolutions, really,” she explained. “There’s the political revolution that launched the Republican landslide, the cultural revolution without which the political revolution cannot succeed, and the personal revolution in how we see the purpose of our lives.”

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And Arianna Huffington’s purpose these days--her public-personal purpose--is to fill the public welfare void that will be left if the Republican majority in Congress succeeds in dismantling the welfare system.

“If you believe, as we believe, that the safety net government provides is full of holes and torn and doesn’t really work anymore, then there has got to be something to take its place,” she said.

And that is what her monthly lunches in a Georgetown condominium overlooking the Potomac River--contributed by the Seagram’s Corp.--are all about, she said.

She invites people to a “brown bag lunch” so they can join in intimate discussions about how to replace the welfare state. The fare is not literally brown bag: Guests treat themselves to a beef stroganoff buffet and baby carrots served on blue-rimmed Limoges china.

Twenty-two guests attentively gathered at last month’s meeting, including staffers from the Progress and Freedom Foundation, housing professionals, members of nonprofit organizations and former Delaware Gov. Pete DuPont.

Conservative writers Marvin Olasky and Don Eberly, whose books are on Gingrich’s reading list, assisted Huffington in leading the discussion. “I must admit, I have an intellectual love affair with both of these men,” she said as she introduced them.

“This is the beginning of a conversation about what needs to be done,” Huffington said while the chocolate cake was served. “We’ve got to get to work.

“Everybody knows that money alone is not going to solve the acute problems facing us,” she said as she explained the group’s plans to replace welfare programs soon to hit the congressional chopping block. “The question is how do you turn lives around? How do you turn around the lives of addicts and alcoholics and the single mothers?”

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The answer, she says, is volunteerism, community involvement, local control and private funding of programs that have little to do with federal government. Huffington wants all facets of the private sector to chip in--individuals, corporations and churches.

Being married to multimillionaire Mike Huffington makes her ideas an easy target for those less fortunate. But even in liberal camps, Arianna Huffington has her supporters.

“There is so much overlap between liberals and conservatives, and in many cases, we agree more than disagree,” said Jane Fortsen, who once worked with the Carter Center in Atlanta. Describing herself as a liberal Democrat with a longtime involvement in public housing, Fortsen recently joined the Progress and Freedom Foundation.

“I’m not a liberal, I’m not a conservative, but they characterize us as a liberal organization,” said Andrew E. Taubman, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization pushing to apply “Jeffersonian democracy” to the changes being wrought by technology.

Taubman said he was intrigued with the monthly lunch and plans to return. “They say what they think and stick their chin out. If they get hit, they get back up and keep on plugging. I like that.”

Besides, it’s good networking. “It’s fascinating to think that Newt Gingrich could be president someday and these people around him could be his advisers,” he said.

Phinney writes for States News Service.


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