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The great SUV divide

Huffington did a 180, from guzzler to hybrid, and she's still spinning.

January 29, 2003|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

Arianna Huffington's assistant is shocked. "You want her for two hours? In person?"

She'll have to check on that. Granted, things are even busier than usual for the ubiquitous conservative-turned-"independent" columnist and political provocateur. But that's what happens when, just before your book condemning corporate greed debuts, you help put together a series of TV ads that accuse the 20 million or so owners of sport utility vehicles of aiding and abetting terrorism. Of, in essence, contributing to the destruction of the World Trade Center and the deaths of more than 3,000 Americans. Things get a little crazy.

There are all the news shows and radio programs to do, the fan and hate mail and multiple Web sites (one for the Detroit Group, which put out the ads, one for "all things Arianna") to cope with. All this on top of a syndicated column that appears in several papers, including this one, and which recently offered President Bush an addendum to his State of the Union. Not to mention picking up Isabella or Christina from private school, making sure there's at least some togetherness over an early family dinner.

An hour would work better for Huffington, as it turns out.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday January 30, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 16 inches; 604 words Type of Material: Correction
SUV debate -- The group of activists behind an ad campaign against SUVs is the Detroit Project, not the Detroit Group, as stated in an article about Arianna Huffington in Tuesday's Calendar.

When the electronic gates of her Brentwood mansion swing open, Huffington's now famous hybrid Toyota Prius and her Volvo station wagon, the car she bought after forsaking her Lincoln Navigator, are parked right outside. They are the result of an epiphany Huffington had after Sept. 11. Her friend Laurie David, wife of TV writer-producer Larry David, helped her realize that by accepting low gas mileage, she was directly aiding nations that succor terrorists.

Then, in one of her columns, she teasingly wondered what would happen if some group ran a series of ads satirizing the government's war on drugs ads. You know, the ones where a teenager looks at the camera and says she supports international murder by smoking pot. "How about using the same shock-value tactics," she wrote, "to confront the public with the ... much more linearly linked consequences of their energy wastefulness?"

As luck would have it, one of her very own friends, a co-creator of the "Got Milk?" campaign, had on hand several scripts right along these lines. All in the very same column. So before you could say, "Mine's the black electric hybrid," she and David and the rest of the Detroit Group were holding a press conference at the Beverly Hills Hotel to announce the ads.

Many TV markets, including local ones, refused to run them, but the group and its cause had already gotten millions of dollars worth of free publicity.

"I'm having someone figure out just how many millions of dollars," she says, settling into a sofa in her study.

Because of her former transgressions, Huffington has said repeatedly that she is not in a position to be holier than thou. She says it again now. "I connected the dots late. This is why I want to help other people to connect them. Our addiction to oil is influencing our foreign policy."

She leans forward a bit, earnestly, and speaks as if this were breaking news. And she almost gets away with it. At 52, Arianna Huffington has been many things politically, but there are a few things she has always been: smart, self-possessed, well-informed, lovely and very, very charming. She has a delighted laugh, and even after many years away from her mother Greece, that accent. Of which she is quite aware. When asked in a recent interview if she knew what the word Prius means, she confessed she did not. "It sounds vaguely naughty," she replied. "With my Greek accent, a lot of things sound vaguely naughty."

The Huffington persona is famously seductive. Her life thus far has been so interesting -- the Cambridge years, the New York years, the splashy foray into political spousedom, the even splashier exit. (Many people get divorced. Few of them have their husbands come out in Esquire.) Her books have almost always gotten buzz -- her biography of Picasso, though derided by critics, was a huge bestseller and the basis of "Surviving Picasso" starring Anthony Hopkins. Anthony Hopkins.

It's tempting to just agree with her, especially if, as many people do, you happen to actually agree with her. Who in their right mind thinks our relationships in the Middle East are healthy and well-managed? But agreeing with Arianna Huffington isn't always a simple proposition. Reactions from her fellow columnists, profiles about her in magazines, even a simple Google of her name reveal a sort of cultural soul-searching.

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