Arianna Huffington, fresh from a TV appearance, her hair blown out, her five-foot-ten frame amped up by a two-inch set of heels, clacks into the hushed Soho offices of the Huffington Post. It is her first visit to her newsroom since she left for a two-week trip to Italy and Greece, and she is ready for some employee hug time. “It’s so good to see you,” she cries to a pair of slightly startled assistants among a number of young people typing away methodically, many with headphones plugged in. “Would you like lunch? I’m buying lunch.”
Huffington, once a largely spectral speakerphone presence here, has rented a townhouse in the West Village and is around much more now. Ever since her daughter Isabella got into Yale (joining sister Christina), working out of her Brentwood home made less sense. She’s gotten to know the staff a lot better. “The best part has been the back-and-forth of ideas in person,” she explains. “Even though we are celebrating the virtual world, there’s always something special about being in the same room.”
An assistant brings us coffee. Huffington asks for a Stevia, which begins a lengthy search of drawers. “We don’t have a hierarchy in our operation,” Huffington continues. “I see everything as a team, and I love empowering people.” The assistant is now on her hands and knees, rooting through Huffington’s bag. She finds a Stevia.
Walking around the office, Huffington is clearly proud of—even maternal toward—her young workers. She insists on introducing me to several, rousing them out of their headphone-induced isolation. As she greets them, they stand up hastily, as if submitting themselves for inspection.
“This is Shahien Nasiripour,” she says, introducing me to a business reporter. “He cooks dinner for his girlfriend. She’s in law school.”
As she walks over to a fashion reporter, she explains, “We have a campaign in our style section for women to wear flats.”
“She wears flats,” the young woman assures me as I eye Huffington’s heels. “She carries them in her bag, and there are holes in them.” In fact, earlier Huffington had showed them to me, as if they were a trophy, explaining, “My favorite thing about New York is how much walking I can do. I’m like obsessed with my ballet flats. I have to graduate to feeling that I can give speeches on the stage and be interviewed on TV and not wear heels.”
In her office, she tells me about her trip and about her new book. “We literally arrived at the little Amalfi port, and there was Newt Gingrich with Callista, his wife. And so Barbara Walters was with me and she invited him to appear on The View and I invited him to blog. He said he will.” But aren’t they foes? “He has a book coming out in November,” she explains.
Arianna’s book is called Third World America: How Our Politicians Are Abandoning the Middle Class and Betraying the American Dream. It’s a paean to the downtrodden American worker and a summation of basically every single fear Huffington has about the trajectory of the country.
“The stubborn facts kept nagging at me as the warning signs became more and more numerous,” she writes in the preface. “I had to choose whether to sound like Cassandra”—the ultimate tragic seer, who was, naturally, Greek—“or fall back on a double dose of the congenital optimism of both my native and adopted countries.” The book is alarming and gloomy, with a not entirely convincing note of let’s-all-just-pull-together uplift in the end.
Which raises an obvious question: What does such a wealthy woman know about workaday suffering? “I think the ability to empathize is not a function of shared circumstances,” she says, noting that historically, “there are many people who are not themselves middle class but who made the fate of the middle class their priority.” Others, less so. “That’s why watching the Masters of the Universe testifying makes you wonder, What happened to their empathy gene?”
Arianna hopes Third World America won’t be just a book but will launch a popular movement toward empathy and charity work—even if one is unemployed. “The minute you start doing something for others, you move from being a victim of your circumstances and the economy to being a helper—and that has a huge impact on how you see yourself,” she says. “And ironically, you are much more likely to get a job.”
The Huffington Post now hosts a section featuring inspirational personal stories about economic hardship and recovery and partnerships with nonprofits. Huffington brings another employee over to explain the project: “The idea is just to use those stories as a catalyst for action somehow. We’re still trying to figure out the best way to do that.”