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From the Archives: Arianna Huffington

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Arianna Huffington in 1994.

This article is from the May 1994 issue of The Washingtonian.

By Diana McLellan

Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington has it all: looks, brains, money, family, love.

She's a gorgeous redhead married to a stud-muffin oil-zillionaire congressman, Michael Huffington, who's currently running for Dianne Feinstein's California Senate seat.

"The most upwardly mobile Greek since Icarus," Arianna has been called. She was the first foreign student to head Britain's Cambridge Union debate team. At 23 she was a best-selling author — The Female Woman. Since then, she's written five books, including lollapalooza biographies of Maria Callas and Pablo Picasso. It's said that she conquered social London in the '70s, New York in the '80s, and the West Coast in the '90s.

She's queen of her own cable chat-show, Critical Mass, on the rightish National Empowerment Television channel. She's the mon of two adorable little girls. She's chatelaine of a peach-colored Italian villa in Montecito, California, and of the former Connolly manse (as in Williams & Connolly), in DC's Wesley Heights.

On both coasts she's the frequent hostess of what she calls "critical mass" dinner parties for 20, at which issues of the day — volunteerism, health care — are discussed over marvelous food and wine. At a recent one, she sat poised with notebook and pencil as the likes of Michael Novak, Nina Totenberg, Lane Kirkland, and Lucky Roosevelt opined.

Yes, the gods smile on Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington. And Arianna smiles back.

Her newest book, due out this month, is The Fourth Instinct: The Call of the Soul. Her last soulful book, After Reason, argued that man's search for meaning is not satisfied by 20th-century materialism. It was published in 1979, just as the Greed Wave was breaking, and it flopped.

But these are spiritually needy times. Fourth Instinct, with its polished New Age, high-concept rhetoric, could launch Arianna as a new guru of good.

"There's not much you can do about your first three instincts — for survival, power, and sex," she says as we sit in the bright bay window of La Brasserie on Capitol Hill.

The fourth instinct — her own phrase — is "the cry of the soul for meaning and purpose. It can be cultivated, refined, and nurtured. And it can change the world."

Something, perhaps, like Hillary Rodham Clinton's politics of meaning?

"I'm glad she was pointing out what was wrong with our culture — the meaninglessness, the young people growing up with nothing to believe in," says Arianna. "But there's a real disconnection between her diagnostics and her conclusion. She looks to government to provide for security — Michael Lerner even called for a Department of Family. We need to recognize that these spiritual changes can only come to individuals, that the government does not have the solutions. All of us, even Republicans, are operating under the New Deal mentality."

Arianna's Greek-accented monotone is velvet-soft, beguiling, almost hypnotic. Every now and again I have to pinch myself or I find my mind drifting into an intellectual la-la lagoon, where I forget what I think.

She believes that if a "critical mass" of influential people hops aboard the spiritual bandwagon, the tide of human events will take a turn for the better, and a brave new world of harmony and virtue will emerge.

After all, she points out, the reverse has already happened: "Even though most people never read Sartre, existentialism, with its vision of an indifferent universe, came to permeate our culture."

What, I wonder, does her "fourth instinct" provide that religion doesn't?

"For many people, conventional religion is exactly what can fulfill that instinct. The church includes a lot of is aspects, from the connection with God to service and volunteerism. But others, because of their upbringing or the way their religion was taught, find access to their fourth instinct by other means. Art, for example. The problem comes when people begin to worship art or the artist instead of seeing them as a conduit to touch something deeper in ourselves . . . . You might access your fourth instinct through relationships, through pain, through science, through healing."

Faith has played a big part in Arianna's life. The daughter of a newspaper owner in Athens, she was on her knees at age 3 praying to the Virgin Mary, she writes. At 16 she studied comparative religions at Shantanikeran University, outside Calcutta. In the 1970s she became enamored of John-Roger, the controversial founder of Insight and the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness. "I've got value from his seminars, and he's a friend," she says, but his name isn't in her book.

When she was introduced to her husband, Michael, he asked what the most important thing in her life was. She answered, "God." They were off and running. (She's Greek Orthodox, he's Episcopalian.)

Has she never doubted the existence of a supreme being?

"That's a great blessing in my life, that I never did . . . One of the great moments on television was when the psychologist Carl Jung was asked by [Edward R.] Murrow whether he believed in God. And he turned and said, 'I don't believe: I know.'

"Jung brought the deepest and richest perspective to psychology — really integrating the psyche, which is the soul. The theme of my book on the ancient Greek gods and goddesses [The Gods of Greece] was Jungian. Each one represented an aspect of ourselves. How can we bring them together to make a full human being? By integrating the cerebral and the sensual, the intuitive and the rational — we must attend to all our different parts, like propitiating different gods. The tendency is to overestimate the importance of the rational. And so much of modern psychology — B.F. Skinner and even Freud — reduces everything to those first three instincts, and touches on the soul last."

One notion that she espouses in her new book already has maddened some, the idea that government, by doing good, robs individuals — who would otherwise be doing that good — of an outlet for their virtue. She says that welfare has created "a vicious cycle of entitlement and resentment, where there should be a cycle of gratitude and trust."

I ask: Is gratitude a particularly grand emotion? Both Head Start and Medicare seem to work pretty well without it.

"I think gratitude is a wonderful emotion. I love feeling grateful. I teach my children not to take anything for granted. I don't mean gratitude for a hot meal, but that sense of well-being and connectedness that often comes unbidden . . . . If you think of the billions and billions of dollars that have been spent — think of the alternative, of things being run locally. Think of Martha's Table here, where money is used so wisely. You're not going to get that in a large bureaucracy."

She thinks that goodness is both infectious and addictive. "Have you seen Schindler's List? It shows how people can be seduced into goodness — how you can do a good act and see how it feels and then do another and another — the same way you can be seduced into evil.

"For me, giving is not just for those you give to. It is for you."

I asked about a first-person account in her book of an out-of-body experience following the birth of one of her daughters.

"Christina was with me for several hours after her birth . . . . A few moments after everyone had left the room, I began trembling convulsively . . . . And then my body was no longer shaking. I had left it. I was looking down at myself, at Christina, at the tube roses on the night stand, at the entire room. I had no fear at all . . . . I was being washed in a sense of enormous wellbeing and strength . . . . It was as if the curtain of heaven had parted to give me a glimpse of wholeness: birth, life, and death — seeing them all at once."

Someone I've known since childhood, who I don't believe is nuts, recently confided to me that she'd had several out-of-body forays, soaring over fields and towns, even encountering other souls en route. Afterward, I had a go at it — lying in bed and waiting for liftoff. I had no success. I confess my failure to Arianna.

"Do you have dreams? You must pay attention to your dreams. I always encourage people to keep a dream journal, even if it's only three lines. We all receive messages from our dreams. They figure in all religions. Dreams, apparitions, visions — whatever they are, they are not normal, everyday life. And we clear things in our dreams, work things out in that dream state so we don't have to work them out on this level."

And what of those with no consciousness of their own spirituality? Or the poor, with nothing to give to others?

"A lot of the people who are most involved in shelters and work for the homeless don't have much themselves. Look at the literature of concentration camps — you can't have less than that, with everything taken away from you. And yet the spiritual side flourishes . . . .

"There is something in everyone that keeps them connected to the fourth instinct, however small or fragile it may be. And if someone draws a complete blank, if the words 'God' or 'spirituality' don't mean a thing, I would ask: Do you have children? That incredible feeling of unconditional love — you can translate it into something larger, a sense of belonging in the universe."

I notice that Arianna, although she ordered a glass of wine to keep me company, hasn't touched a drop. And while she greets the exquisite food with cries of delight, she is very careful about what goes in her perfectly made-up mouth. You can see why the girl they called "the Greek Pudding" at Cambridge is, at 43, a perfect size 6. For exercise, she says. "I go on great hikes in the hills with my husband. The one who's in better shape talks on the way up, and the other one on the way down. It's a great way to catch up."

She believes strongly in spiritual grace. I inquire hopefully: Can it be acquired?

"Well, no. That's the thing about grace: You have it or not. It's not rational. But you can expand it. What I call critical mass is, in a way, the scientific equivalent of grace. We are trying to get people involved in something larger than their own lives, reaching out, recognizing that life is not all about material things. If you look around, you will think that is impossible. But you only need a certain number of people to move to the threshold of a revolution. If we do our part, then grace — the grace of God — is extended and completes the job. We don't have to do it all ourselves. It's the complete opposite of believing that really good things can only be done by big government, that every little bit of change must be planned."

I find myself nodding, I wonder: Is beauty a manifestation of grace? How might Arianna's own early course through the social and intellectual shoals of Britain — often guided by powerful male mentors — have gone if she'd looked like, say, Donna Shalala?

A flicker of amusement crosses her face. "I think it's interesting how personality is more important than looks," she says modestly. "But I think beauty is something that connects with people, like the ability to create intimacy is a gift."

She attributes her success to hard work.

"I have always worked very hard . . . . I don't think anything I've done has been effortless. When I started debating at Cambridge, I was really, really bad. I had to read every word I spoke, and my accent was far heavier. But when you're trying to accomplish something, your work becomes your love. What I find disconcerting is people who don't see hard work as something valuable. Look at these classes they have in self-esteem. How about some classes in how to work? Nothing gives you self-esteem like getting something done — something hard, almost impossible."

Along with writing, mothering, entertaining, telecasting, and now talking about her book, she's putting her elegant shoulder to the wheel for her husband's Senate campaign.

Arianna, some say, was born to be a '90s political wife. Yet her route was circuitous. It was her monied chum Ann Getty who introduced her to Michael Huffington, then a mere Houston oilman, on a three-day opera-crawling blind date in 1985.

Ann also paid for the Huffingtons' 1986 wedding, which society buffs may recall featured Barbara Walters and Lucky Roosevelt as bridesmaids and — as Henry Kissinger is supposed to have said — included everything but an Aztec sacrificial fire dance.

The couple sampled Washington during the late '80s. He had a low-profile defense appointment. She made an occasional social splash, bowling over newsfolk and cave-dwellers with charming toasts. But mostly she sat in her Georgetown study in her sweats, a lighted candle to the Muse beside her, writing her controversial bestseller, Picasso: Creator and Destroyer.

Both liked their taste of politics here. Michael sank $ 5.4 million into his winning campaign for a Southern California seat in Congress. He's said to be willing to drop $ 15 million more of his own money to capture Dianne Feinstein's Senate seat in November.

"I will campaign for the issues he's running on," says Arianna. "I love communicating. I love speaking, reaching out to people. But I also will focus on what is central to what I'm doing, the thing my book is about. The central thing to me is the need to recognize that the problem-solvers are individuals and families, not big government."

And if he loses?

"We will always keep a foot in Washington. I will continue my critical-mass dinners, definitely. Michael is a marathon runner, and a political race is like a marathon, all-consuming. You don't plan for afterward."For more From the Archives articles from Washingtonian, click here.