Search for democratic light amid 'shadows'

At 5 o'clock last Friday, Arianna Huffington - celebrity columnist, political agent provocateur, former Republican turned "progressive populist" - was on the telephone, pinning down the final details for the "shadow convention," the big political bash she's throwing this week in Los Angeles.

As aides and volunteers crisscrossed the study where she works in her Brentwood home, and a reporter entered the room, she earnestly asked the question of the moment into the telephone: "Do you know where we can get red, white, and blue tablecloths?"

It was an amusing indicator of the attention to detail Ms. Huffington brings to the gatherings she loves to throw. In recent years, she has become a reigning queen of salon-style public policy debates, both here and in Washington, hosting dinners whose participants cut across the political spectrum.

And in recent weeks, she's taken those intimate gatherings to a national level, with the shadow conventions - the first held in Philadelphia during the Republican National Convention, and the second held this week as the Democrats meet in Los Angeles.

Designed to focus attention on public-policy issues ignored by the major parties, the conventions have featured guest lists as eclectic as Huffington's dinner parties - ranging from Arizona Sen. John McCain and the Rev. Jesse Jackson in Philadelphia to Harvard University Prof. Cornel West and Republican Gov. Gary Johnson of New Mexico in Los Angeles.

"I love independent thinkers," said Huffington, who sat curled up on an overstuffed couch, feet tucked underneath her, as if she had no other pressures in the world (patriotic tablecloths notwithstanding). "I love people who are engaged in the debate of our times, who are questioning things, who want to change things. I've always loved getting friends together and staying up all night and debating."

First conceived last February, during a conversation between Huffington and Peter Hirshberg, a friend and Internet entrepreneur, the shadow conventions have drawn together politicians, grass-roots activists, and citizens who are fed up with the nation's status quo. Each meeting has focused on three topics: campaign-finance overhaul, the growing gap between rich and poor, and the need to focus on drug policies that concentrate on treatment rather than incarceration. "These issues don't have financial constituencies supporting them," said Scott Harshbarger, former attorney general of Massachusetts and now president of Common Cause, at the convention's opening session on Sunday.

"But these are issues that matter to the American people."

Mr. Harshbarger and Common Cause got involved after he sent an e-mail to Huffington three months ago, introducing himself and applauding her advocacy of campaign-finance overhaul. She called back immediately and invited him to participate in the conventions.

"She's an amazingly energetic, substantive person who has a tremendous instinct for publicity, which I don't condemn," says Harshbarger. "These issues need it."

Not everyone is so charmed by Huffington's "instinct for publicity."

Critics see her as an opportunist, always striving for the spotlight. Katha Pollitt, a columnist for The Nation, told the Los Angeles Times Magazine last month that Huffington's "major interest is in making herself more famous and socially prominent. I find it amazing that anyone would take her seriously."

It is true that Huffington has enjoyed far more than Andy Warhol's proscribed 15 minutes of fame. Born in Greece, she attended Cambridge University in England, where she became president of its prestigious debating society in the early 1970s - the first foreigner to hold that office. While still in her 20s, she garnered attention as an author, writing about the feminist movement, and later penning biographies of Maria Callas and Pablo Picasso.

In 1980, she came to New York, made a splash in the city's elite social circles, and married millionaire Michael Huffington.

After the couple moved to California and her husband (from whom she is now divorced) decided to run as a Republican candidate for the US Senate, she gained a whole new reputation. She was routinely portrayed in the media as a manipulative wife, bent on gaining power. Her image wasn't helped by the fact that her husband's campaign was a highly negative race that failed - despite the fact that he spent $30 million of his own money, a record at that time.

"I'm very lucky he didn't win," says Huffington, who says she never wanted her husband to run, but supported him when he chose to do so. "It's a role for which I've never been cut out, being a political wife. I've always had way too many opinions of my own."

Things didn't get much better for Huffington when she allied herself with then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich - only to part with him acrimoniously some months later, disillusioned because she says he wasn't as compassionate in his politics as she hoped he would be.

Since then, Huffington's political views have evolved from a conservative skepticism of the role of government in addressing problems such as poverty, to deciding that government funding is essential - not in creating new programs, but in providing money to replicate grass-roots efforts that have proven successful. While this has damaged her credibility in certain circles, her outspoken stands on issues being taken up by the shadow conventions have won her admirers.

Now a syndicated newspaper columnist and a frequent guest on Bill Maher's "Politically Incorrect" television program, Huffington says she has no interest in running for political office - especially "not in a broken system," where, "in order to win, you have to sell out."

Response to the conventions, Huffington says - which included 2 million Web-site hits during four days in Philadelphia - has strengthened her conviction that there is a citizens' movement building across the country.

"You can really feel the longing of people to be reengaged in public life in a real way," she says. "You cannot create a civil society if you don't have people really deeply caring for something other than their own immediate concerns."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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