The great SUV divide

Times Staff Writer

Arianna Huffington's assistant is shocked. "You want her for two hours? In person?"

She'll have to check on that. Granted, things are even busier than usual for the ubiquitous conservative-turned-"independent" columnist and political provocateur. But that's what happens when, just before your book condemning corporate greed debuts, you help put together a series of TV ads that accuse the 20 million or so owners of sport utility vehicles of aiding and abetting terrorism. Of, in essence, contributing to the destruction of the World Trade Center and the deaths of more than 3,000 Americans. Things get a little crazy.

There are all the news shows and radio programs to do, the fan and hate mail and multiple Web sites (one for the Detroit Group, which put out the ads, one for "all things Arianna") to cope with. All this on top of a syndicated column that appears in several papers, including this one, and which recently offered President Bush an addendum to his State of the Union. Not to mention picking up Isabella or Christina from private school, making sure there's at least some togetherness over an early family dinner.

An hour would work better for Huffington, as it turns out.

When the electronic gates of her Brentwood mansion swing open, Huffington's now famous hybrid Toyota Prius and her Volvo station wagon, the car she bought after forsaking her Lincoln Navigator, are parked right outside. They are the result of an epiphany Huffington had after Sept. 11. Her friend Laurie David, wife of TV writer-producer Larry David, helped her realize that by accepting low gas mileage, she was directly aiding nations that succor terrorists.

Then, in one of her columns, she teasingly wondered what would happen if some group ran a series of ads satirizing the government's war on drugs ads. You know, the ones where a teenager looks at the camera and says she supports international murder by smoking pot. "How about using the same shock-value tactics," she wrote, "to confront the public with the ... much more linearly linked consequences of their energy wastefulness?"

As luck would have it, one of her very own friends, a co-creator of the "Got Milk?" campaign, had on hand several scripts right along these lines. All in the very same column. So before you could say, "Mine's the black electric hybrid," she and David and the rest of the Detroit Group were holding a press conference at the Beverly Hills Hotel to announce the ads.

Many TV markets, including local ones, refused to run them, but the group and its cause had already gotten millions of dollars worth of free publicity.

"I'm having someone figure out just how many millions of dollars," she says, settling into a sofa in her study.

Because of her former transgressions, Huffington has said repeatedly that she is not in a position to be holier than thou. She says it again now. "I connected the dots late. This is why I want to help other people to connect them. Our addiction to oil is influencing our foreign policy."

She leans forward a bit, earnestly, and speaks as if this were breaking news. And she almost gets away with it. At 52, Arianna Huffington has been many things politically, but there are a few things she has always been: smart, self-possessed, well-informed, lovely and very, very charming. She has a delighted laugh, and even after many years away from her mother Greece, that accent. Of which she is quite aware. When asked in a recent interview if she knew what the word Prius means, she confessed she did not. "It sounds vaguely naughty," she replied. "With my Greek accent, a lot of things sound vaguely naughty."

The Huffington persona is famously seductive. Her life thus far has been so interesting -- the Cambridge years, the New York years, the splashy foray into political spousedom, the even splashier exit. (Many people get divorced. Few of them have their husbands come out in Esquire.) Her books have almost always gotten buzz -- her biography of Picasso, though derided by critics, was a huge bestseller and the basis of "Surviving Picasso" starring Anthony Hopkins. Anthony Hopkins.

It's tempting to just agree with her, especially if, as many people do, you happen to actually agree with her. Who in their right mind thinks our relationships in the Middle East are healthy and well-managed? But agreeing with Arianna Huffington isn't always a simple proposition. Reactions from her fellow columnists, profiles about her in magazines, even a simple Google of her name reveal a sort of cultural soul-searching.

Does she mean what she says (about SUVs, corporate excess, fat-cat lobbyists, apostrophe usage), even though it contradicts her past actions? Is she motivated by a real change of heart or the stomach-clenching anticipation of more air time? Does her sincerity level matter if she actually effects change? "It's hard to pin down Arianna's species," comedian Paula Poundstone once wrote in a piece requesting a political field guide as detailed as "Know Your Guinea Pig." "If only her ears drooped forward."

And that was back when Huffington still supported Newt Gingrich.

Huffington herself is pretty big on soul-searching; it has fueled many of her larger political and spiritual shifts. As with her anti-SUV epiphany, she has come to realize that the time-honored traditions of Christianity are perhaps more reliable than the New Age teachings of guru John-Roger; that despite her previous affection for the GOP, two-party politics are morally bankrupt; and, more recently, that the free market is not interested in solving social ills because many executives are in it strictly for the dough.

Huffington has many fans, people who think she says things others are too chicken to say. Yet many environmentalists, journalists and just plain folks had been protesting SUVs as antisocial gas-guzzling annoyances long before she bought, much less abandoned, her Navigator.

Her shock at our dependence on foreign oil also seems odd, as she was once Mrs. Michael Huffington. "Wasn't she married to the son of an oil tycoon?" wrote one blogger recently.

And although SUVs may use more gas than other cars, they don't require some sort of special terrorist gas. So at exactly how many miles per gallon does an ordinary driver slip into complicity with international mayhem?

"Oh, I don't think you should take the ads so literally," she says, laughing. "They are satire, satire of the president's war on drugs. They are to get people to think, about the logic of this administration, about what they are doing, to connect the dots."

Despite the jarring images of soccer moms admitting to supporting criminals, the point, Huffington says, was not to blame SUV drivers so much as rile Washington and Detroit. And she is very disappointed in the TV stations that have returned the Detroit Group's checks. "They say we make claims we can't back up. This from stations that run products which claim to do all sorts of things, like ensure happiness."

There will, she says, be at least one more ad in the series, and it will lay the blame more firmly on D.C. and Detroit.

"Aaron Sorkin helped with the script," she says offhandedly of the creator of "The West Wing." "It was wonderful. I didn't even ask him."

As one hour stretches into two, her next appointments arrive. "Give them lunch," Huffington tells one of the many members of her support staff. "Don't wait; I'm not eating."

Huffington says she considers herself first and foremost a journalist, although one newspaper, the Oregonian, recently pulled her column from its pages because editors felt she had crossed the line between commentator and activist.

"Activism is an extension of journalism," she says. "I don't feel it's enough to write about a problem. I feel blessed to have the freedom to speak out. And I think the access I've had to people has helped me understand."

Huffington argues that her political 180 has in fact been gradual. "I was never a social conservative. I believed in a conservative role of government; I thought the private sector would step up to the plate." Now, she says, she would categorize herself as progressive, her No. 1 concern being "the people who have been left behind."

Which fits in perfectly with her new book, "Pigs at the Trough: How Corporate Greed and Political Corruption Are Undermining America" (Crown). In it, Huffington is not afraid to say that people like John Rigas, former chief executive of Adelphia, are Bad Men, and that influential corporate dollars have been laved about like so much battery acid, eating through the foundations of democracy itself. (The soul searching begins again: Isn't this the woman who helped her husband spend more money in search of a Senate seat than most cast members of "Friends" earn in a year?)

Again, she talks with much energy and zeal about the detrimental effects lobbying and big spending in general have on the body politic, and again, it's as if she cannot believe this sort of thing has been allowed to go unchecked for so long.

"I believe in a tipping point," she says, explaining her timing on this and other issues. "You get to the point where the disgust you feel causes you to either walk away or do something to change it."

Her two messages of the moment seem to dovetail nicely, almost -- could it be? -- as if planned. But in fact, she says with a laugh, her publisher has just called to admonish her for all the ink and air she has recently commanded. "He says I have only so much time. I should talk only about the book."

This is what she plans to do in her next round of meetings. A young woman and man sit at the dining room table, waiting for Huffington. They are here to brainstorm about turning "Pigs at the Trough" into a television series.

Arianna Huffington, the Hollywood years.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Thursday January 30, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 16 inches; 604 words Type of Material: Correction SUV debate -- The group of activists behind an ad campaign against SUVs is the Detroit Project, not the Detroit Group, as stated in an article about Arianna Huffington in Tuesday's Calendar.
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