I t’s the night of the premiere for God Spoke, the movie about Al Franken’s crusade against the right, and the converted are out in force. The Independent Film Center is filled with documentary filmmakers, lefty progressives, political bloggers, journalists, and comics—an aggressively dowdy crowd lugging messenger bags. Then Arianna Huffington arrives. In heels, she towers over the tiny people around her, and she is wearing all the colors of beige that have special names: taupe, sand, cream. Her deep-brown slacks are beautifully cut, as are her thick belt and her enormous leather handbag. She looks slightly ridiculous and totally lovely.
And of course, she knows everyone. She and Al Franken embrace. The Huffington Post’s media blogger Rachel Sklar hands her Dave Zinczenko’s new advice book for women, for which she will participate in a reading days later. An adviser for Ned Lamont rushes over to thank her for her advice about wooing a reporter. “I did what you said, I took her to lunch,” he tells Huffington enthusiastically. “She explained all about this editor, the one who was behind the takedown of Dean, the takedown of Kerry … ”
Quite a few members of the audience are bloggers for the Huffington Post: Huffington greets Eric Alterman, Max Blumenthal, and Ben Wikler. A genial, shaggy 25-year-old former editor of The Onion, Wikler is collaborating with Huffington on a new political-satire site, funded by Barry Diller. Like Huffington, he’s working the room, inviting young comedians to participate in an upcoming brainstorming session. We chat about his boss’s intense charisma.
“It’s her superpower,” Wikler says. “If she were in the X-Men, that would be her mutant power. If Rogue touched her, she’d take away her charm.”
It might seem odd that a 25-year-old who makes X-Men references would even know a 56-year-old woman famous for her connections to the rich and powerful, but he explains that Franken introduced them. “Of course he met Arianna through me!” Franken interrupts in a mock-disgruntled voice. “Everybody here met her through me! Everybody in the left and comic worlds. I’m sick of it—I made her, dammit!”
But that’s how it is and how it has always been with Huffington: Everywhere she goes turns into a series of links, links that lead to other links. She’s a human blog. Tonight she’s in town to publicize her eleventh book, On Becoming Fearless, and these skills—networking, connecting, befriending—are out in full force. The flamboyant talking head has been accused all her life of what might be called crimes of charm: intellectual dilettantism and opportunistic shape-shifting, most notoriously for her late-nineties slide from the Gingrich right to the Franken left. She has attracted ridicule for seeming just a little larger than life—too friendly, too flashy, too weird for any given room. But at 56, she seems to have found a culture almost supernaturally suited to her strengths: her endless blogroll of friends, her fascination with “contagious” ideas and the uses of popularity. The very things she has been mocked for over the years—her ability to shift swiftly from topic to topic, her swashbuckling political rhetoric, her penchant for attention-getting—are what the online world is all about. She’s found her home in the blogosphere.
Walking into the offices of the Huffington Post, I have a dizzying flashback to 1995: It’s an airy dot-com loft that—unlike, say, Air America, whose corporate cubicles we’d visited that morning—feels exceptionally well funded. Bright Pop Art splotches adorn the walls. Twenty-five-year-olds huddle on sofas eating takeout. There’s an MTV-logo-shaped fish tank in the lobby and a massive portrait of Muhammad Ali and, of course, a pool table.
Huffington has spent the week on book promotion— a friendly interview with Rachel Maddow at Air America (she solicits her as a blogger), a showdown with Bill O’Reilly (they square off over the Kurds), a tête-à-tête with Franken (who invites her to his premiere). At each juncture, she has stayed adamantly on message, each seemingly spontaneous anecdote practiced and polished. Her book, she explains, concerns both personal fearlessness, the kind she hopes to inspire in her daughters, and political courage, the kind she hopes to inspire in the Democrats. Asked by reporters for one small, quotidian fear, she inevitably mentions eyelash curlers. One afternoon, she tells me about her struggles with post-divorce dating; three hours later, I hear her deliver the same story at Barnes & Noble. In between interviews, Huffington BlackBerrys in her Town Car, fielding phone calls with imperial calm, checking in with her sister, Agapi (who lives with her and is taking care of Huffington’s daughters in her absence; their mother lived with them as well, until her death in 2000), and occasionally stopping to pick up friends in an impromptu manner that is driving her book publicist bananas.