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March 12, 2000

To the Editor:

In his review of my book, "How To Overthrow the Government" (Book Review, Feb. 20), Joe Conason wondered what prompted the transformation in my political thinking. As anyone reading my column over the last five years knows, this certainly has been no overnight flip-flop. And for those few sturdy souls who've plowed through "The Other Revolution," the largely unread book on the crisis in political leadership I wrote in my mid-20s, it's clear that the seeds of "How to Overthrow the Government" were sown a long time ago.

Having spent my college years at Cambridge, studying under John Maynard Keynes' disciples, I found myself inhaling a healthy skepticism of the power of the free market to bring about the good society. When I later rejected Great Society-style government programs, it was because they did not achieve the social justice they sought, not because they were expensive. But I never endorsed trickle-down let-them-eat-cake solutions, either. Indeed, right after the 1992 election, I gave a speech in Washington challenging conservatives to remember the biblical admonition that we will be judged by how we deal with the least among us--and to bring this to the very heart of public policy.

It was then that Newt Gingrich, who happened to catch the speech on C-Span, called and asked me to speak at the Republican congressional retreat. As he put it to me then and repeated two years later in his first speech as speaker, there was greater "moral urgency" in "coming to grips with what's happening to the poorest Americans" than in balancing the budget.

I admit: I was seduced, fooled, blinded, bamboozled--call it what you will. But it didn't take long before I recognized that the Gingrich spiel was only empty rhetoric. And readers of my column were made privy to each realization as it occurred. Disillusioned with the right, did I fall in love with the left? No, because the path I was searching for would take us beyond the standard left-right paradigm and provide new solutions to the greatest crisis America is facing today: the fact that we have become two nations, one basking in unprecedented prosperity, the other left to choke on the dust of Wall Street's galloping bulls.

I found out much more about this other America during my ex-husband's campaigns for Congress and the Senate. In homeless shelters and homes for battered women and abused children, I was exposed to the pain beneath the glittering facade and saw how widespread it was. I also saw first-hand how the forces driving modern campaigns--money, polls, wedge issues and negative ads--are antithetical to real reform and tailor-made to perpetuate a broken status quo.

And since then, every campaign I've written about, including Campaign 2000, has only confirmed my feelings about the degradation of our politics. I now have no political heroes. My heroes are the men and women who are working up-close and personal--sometimes wrenchingly so--to turn lives around. They are the role models I'm exposing my daughters to. Becoming a mother, by the way, has been the most radicalizing experience of all. That America has more homeless children today than at any time since the Great Depression is no longer just a statistic.

I once believed that the private sector--especially conservative multibillionaires who want less government involvement--would rise to the occasion and provide the funding needed to replicate the programs that work, sustain them and bring them to market. One of the changes in my thinking was born of the hard reality I confronted when I tried to raise money for groups and community activists who were good at saving lives but not at raising funds. I sadly discovered how much easier it was raising money for the opera or a fashionable museum. So now, at the same time that I urge--and practice--tithing to poverty fighting, I recognize that the task of overcoming poverty is too monumental to be achieved without the raw power of annual government appropriations.

I also believe more fervently than ever that government dollars, however many trillions of them, will never mend broken lives without citizen engagement. What I found, whether in South Central or Anacostia in Washington, D.C., is the truth of what the Rev. Henry Delaney, who has been transforming boarded up crack houses in Savannah, Ga., once told me: "I want to get people involved in what we're doing. It's like putting a poker in the fire. After a while, the fire gets in the poker too." It certainly does.

So you can blame my evolution on the fire getting in the poker.

Arianna Huffington

Los Angeles, Calif.

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