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Role of Huffington's Wife Becomes Hot Topic in Race : Politics: Some question activity in controversial church. She says liberal conspiracy tries to discredit her husband.

October 11, 1994|DAVE LESHER and BOB SIPCHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Those who have known Arianna Huffington would not be surprised at the latest tempest she has stirred up. After all, when she was 23, her first book was a slap at feminism that brought an international audience of admirers and adversaries.

Now, as husband Mike Huffington campaigns for the U.S. Senate in California, the woman who has often sought the center of attention has found herself there again.

This time Arianna Huffington is the target of accusations that her husband's candidacy is more a product of her ideas and her quest for power than his. And if so, her critics say, they are suspicious about her background in a controversial religious group in which she once served as a minister.

The issue has captivated the national press and raised questions about when a candidate's spouse should become a subject of public scrutiny. Time magazine's recent headline about the Republican couple asked, "Should the Huffingtons Be Stopped?" Vanity Fair's story in the November issue is titled, "Arianna's Virtual Candidate." And earlier this year, the Washington Post headline was "Her Brains, His Money."

Last week, Arianna Huffington and her role in John-Roger's Church of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness was lampooned in the "Doonesbury" comic strip.

"For the last 10 days, we have had nothing but a barrage of the press piling on my wife," Mike Huffington fumed Thursday when the issue was raised by talk show host Larry King during his nationally televised debate with Democratic rival Sen. Dianne Feinstein. "I'm the candidate, my wife is not the candidate. My point is this, my wife's religious beliefs are personal. Why, Dianne, are you making my wife's religious beliefs part of this campaign, or are you?"

Feinstein--whose husband, investor Richard Blum, has sparked controversy in past campaigns--denied that she has encouraged the focus on Arianna Huffington.

But several Democratic officials, notably state party Chairman Bill Press, have been calling attention to Arianna Huffington and her religious beliefs. Huffington critics and some political observers said the scrutiny is appropriate.

"It is legitimate," said political analyst Sherry Babitch Jeffe. "The fact is, she is an integral part of the campaign . . . (and) for a lot of the campaign, she was far more visible than the candidate."

Arianna Huffington said she is "shocked" to be the target of such scrutiny and, particularly, the accusations. In a two-hour interview with The Times at the couple's apartment on Los Angeles' Westside last week, Huffington said the charges are vastly overblown by a liberal conspiracy aimed at discrediting her husband.

Huffington downplayed her role in the campaign, saying she serves as a surrogate speaker like many other political spouses, but is not a major decision maker.

She also described her role in the John-Roger church, known by its acronym MSIA, as a casual one, involving seminars about practical life questions rather than religious dogma. She said the organization is certainly not a cult.

But critics who have worked closely with Arianna Huffington challenge her account about both the campaign and the church. They say she has been a major force in both.

The Times reported Monday that five former staff members at the Huffington campaign said the candidate's wife was so active that she was essentially acting as the campaign manager. They said eight staff members quit their jobs because of disagreements with her decision making at the Orange County headquarters.

"She is the one calling the shots and he is nothing more than her puppet," said one former member of the Huffington campaign staff.

Former MSIA ministers told The Times that Arianna Huffington was a devoted John-Roger follower for many years. A new book by Peter McWilliams, a former MSIA follower now critical of the church, describes Huffington as an active organizer who sought new recruits.

"She embraced it like all of us," said Rick Edelstein, who served as administrator of MSIA for five years and participated in the movement for 20 years.

Huffington, 44, a prominent socialite and author before she met her husband, said she has not participated in the organization since 1987 when she became a born-again Christian after the trauma of a miscarriage.

She said she had been on a spiritual search that included MSIA and a number of New Age adventures including est, walking on hot coals and a channeling experience with actress Shirley MacLaine. Her search is described in her latest book, released in May, called, "The Fourth Instinct, the Call of the Soul."

"In 1987, after we lost the baby, I had a deeply religious experience . . . which made my relationship with Jesus Christ the center of my faith," she said. "It was the end of my spiritual search. . . . I felt like I was home."

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