Daaarling, I've come to save democracy

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Daaarling, I've come to save democracy

Arianna Huffington is a glamorous, opportunistic, media-savvy, heavily accented Queen Bee who has undergone more re-inventions than Al Gore, but still, she might have a point.

"Politics is now an orgy of money," she says in a Zsa Zsa Gabor voice over the telephone, "and it's reached the point where there might not be enough air time for all the ads that can be bought with the money that's been collected.

"And, as a result, more and more people are feeling disenfranchised. They're not even voting. And that's a crisis in democracy and, of course, neither party is going to be addressing it."

This is the Armani-suited, auburn-haired Huffington speaking, the same Greek-born writer who made her name with The Female Woman, an attack on Germaine Greer's feminism. The same one who skipped from London to the United States to become the daaarling party hostess for conservatives in the early 1990s, the confidante of "Contract with America" Republican Newt Gingrich.

The same one who was once the carnivorously ambitious spouse of right-winger Michael Huffington, who pushed him to spend $US30 million ($52 million) on a failed Senate bid, after which she dumped him. Last year he announced he was gay.

This is the same Arianna Huffington who now has a bestseller titled Overthrow the Government and who is zipping around the country drumming up interest for the shadow conventions, which will attempt to dog the Republican and Democratic national conventions that begin at the end of this month.

Huffington is the champion for the three shadow convention issues, which she correctly maintains the major parties will blissfully ignore: the growing disparity between rich and poor in the world's most prosperous nation, punitive drug laws that will soon see 2 million Americans behind bars, and the corrupting influence of special-interest money on politics.

It all strikes cynics as just another pose. "I used to debate Arianna on [CNN's] Crossfire," the Democratic political consultant Bob Shrum told The New Republic. "She was about as conservative as you can get, and suddenly she's for activism and social conscience. I think she's just blown on the winds of fads."

But the workers in citizen and consumer organisations, who put out carefully researched reports on the losers in the new economy, and the druggies in jail, and the links between donations to political parties and stalled bills in Congress, look upon her with hope.

Celebrity and wealth are currencies that rule in the US, and Huffington has given the groups a kind of hitherto unknown mainstream respectability - not to mention a contact book to kill for.

Liberal grumps, such as writer Christopher Hitchens, are converts, and actor Warren "Bullworth" Beatty will speak at the convention in Los Angeles.

It is not as though there will not be any other protests at the Republican convention in Philadelphia from Monday week, or at the Democrat event in Los Angeles next month. There's the homeless convention, the people's convention and the mother's convention. But Huffington's has garnered the names and publicity.

Her big coup is to get former Republican presidential candidate John McCain lumbering up to Philadelphia from Washington in his Straight Talk Express bus, to open the shadow convention.

The former POW gave the presumed Republican nominee, George W. Bush, a fright during the primary campaign and remains the most popular politician in the nation. He will rail about his pet subject of campaign finance reform.

It underlines Huffington's case that McCain will then take the platform at the official Republican convention, where he has been told not to mention the subject.

Huffington's explanation of her metamorphosis from establishment figure to a "politics-is-broken" megaphone is that she naively believed that the Republicans really cared about poor people. Then, while campaigning with her husband, "we'd be at all these glitzy parties [and] one day I was in the inner city and the contrast stunned me. I saw poverty and pain under this glittering facade, and I realised that I had been the mouthpiece for such hypocrisy".

Her analysis that Americans are deeply disengaged with a political system that ignores their most vital concerns is hardly original, but it resonates.

"When you have 68 per cent of the people in jail for drug offences being African-American, when whites consume drugs five times as much as blacks, which means that affluent whites get away with breaking those drug laws and inner-city blacks don't, that's not sustainable in a democracy," she says.

"The shadow conventions are going to spotlight people living in Silicon Valley who have two or three jobs and can get no affordable housing, and some of them end up sleeping on buses.

"We're going to spotlight children whose mothers are in jail for 20 years or, in one case, for life, for non-violent drug offences. There is no spotlight on them, and there has to be an awakened sense of outrage about what's happening, and the neglect of millions of Americans who are not [party] contributors and are not voters."

The big conventions are unlikely to dwell on these issues. These events to formally nominate the presidential candidates are now little more than Oprah-style orgies of sentimentality and bland slogans.

Day one of the Republican convention has the theme of "Opportunity with a Purpose"; day two: "Strength and Security with the Purpose"; day three: "Prosperity with a Purpose", and four: "President with a Purpose".

But why the complacency, Huffington asks, when only 20 per cent of Americans aged 18 to 24 voted in the 1998 congressional elections? When nearly two-thirds of Americans believe the US Government is run for a few big interests rather than for the benefit of all, a reversal of opinion since 1964? And when there is evidence that the number of working poor has actually increased in the US over the past 30 years? "Isn't this worth discussing?" she says.

Huffington pinpoints the role of money in US politics as the root of the problem. For the November elections, members of Congress, political parties and presidential candidates are expected to raise $US3 billion for their campaigns, a record. The conventional conventions will cost the political parties $US85 million alone.

Even the conventions themselves are now fundraisers. Donors of $US5,000 or more to the Republicans will be invited to a Convention Cup golf tournament, and a Salute to the Senate dinner buffet. There will be a fundraiser at the Playboy mansion featuring flamingos and monkeys. Guests will hear Playboy magnate Hugh Heffner's voice urging them to have some champagne.

According to polls, most Americans will pay little notice, partly because the booming economy makes politics less relevant, and partly because of their contempt for the political process.

The traditional television networks, ABC, NBC and CBS, have abandoned a substantial presence at the conventions, leaving gavel-to-gavel coverage to cable television.

The population of the world's most proud democracy is barely interested, and indications are that voter turnout in November will be low again.

Huffington wants people to get angry about their stolen democracy, to get involved to get it back.

"If real change is going to occur in America, it's not going to happen from within either party; it's going to happen by a movement of aroused citizens saying 'Enough is enough'. There has to be fundamental change."


The things we read about America Down Under. Got to admit I kinda like this lady. Will it make any difference to your democracy?

Regards from OZ

-- Pieter (zaadz@icisp.net.au), July 22, 2000


Goober husbands are kinda like goober wives. Her's worked out.

A shrew to be sure but some of her stuff aint that bad.

-- Carlos (riffraff@cybertime.net), July 22, 2000.

I don't see any difference between this woman and the "Million Moms" nonsense; has "politics" now become a "problem" to the Fabulously Wealthy?

To answer your question, no it probably won't make any difference, though I (horrifyingly) find myself agreeing with at least some of what she says. However, I have to take exception with WHERE she thinks the "change" should come from. It's most definitely NOT going to come from outside the two major parties. It's been tried. It hasn't worked yet. Does she think her "society and celebrity friends" are going to make the difference? I doubt it. Real change can only come from WITHIN. (Hmmm, I seem to remember having this conversation recently...)

I can't for the life of me figure how on Earth this woman, at ANY point in time, could have ("naively" or otherwise) "...believed that the Republicans really cared about poor people...". Where the hell has SHE been living?

Oh, that's right. Nevermind.

-- Patricia (PatriciaS@lasvegas.com), July 22, 2000.

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