That's the only word to describe Arianna Huffington's jeremiad, Pigs at the Trough: How Corporate Greed and Political Corruption Are Undermining America (Crown). In a time when the Democrats have abdicated and there is an absence of a vigorous liberal voice—save for the likes of Michael Moore or the still brilliant Jimmy Breslin—Huffington has ridden out to confront the right-wing Goliath, a David with a Greek accent, slingshot ready, unafraid to get down and dirty with the Republican bullyboys of the media like Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh.
Pigs at the Trough is a literary blitzkrieg against big business, corrupt CEOs and the opportunistic politicians who took bribes—uh, campaign contributions—that allowed it all to happen. If you're wondering where your 401(k) went, need to know which CEOs should have a target on their backs—and why—or would just like to enjoy a laugh at the burst hubris of the downfallen, Pigs at the Trough is for you. It's the kind of book that both Karl Marx and Warren Buffett would enjoy.
In stark contrast to the scalding tone of her book, PW met Huffington on a raw, rainy early January morning in the coffee shop of the Hôtel Plaza Athénée on East 64th Street in New York City. Looking much as she does on her many television appearances—meticulously attired with extraordinary reddish hair—Huffington welcomes PW for a discussion of some old-fashioned hardball political questions.
It should be pointed out that Huffington is a convert to the cause, which may explain her zeal. In fact, just 10 years ago, she was on the other side, praising Newt Gingrich while accompanying her then husband, Michael Huffington, as he spent a record $30 million running as a Republican for a California Senate seat—and still somehow managed to lose. So, what's the secret of the turn-a-round to becoming a card-carrying liberal?
"I would call myself a progressive populist," Huffington corrects. "I think the main thrust of my writing is populist. My outrage comes out of the fact that I believe we're living in two nations. Different rules apply to these two nations. The game is increasingly rigged. And even when we talk about reforms after all the scandals and the public outrage, the game is still rigged. You still have [New York State Attorney General] Eliot Spitzer making a deal that involves none of these [Wall Street] people admitting wrongdoing and basically puts an end to their investigations. So all the other stuff that should have been uncovered is not going to be uncovered, at least through Eliot Spitzer's office—and he's a good guy!"
Huffington claims she was never a dyed-in-the-wool Republican. "The thrust of it is that I was always a social moderate. I was also prochoice, progay rights, there was no shift there. The issue of how we deal with poverty has always been central to my writing. I had actually believed Newt Gingrich when he had said in his first speech as speaker that dealing with poverty is more important than balancing the budget.
"That was the speech in which he quoted FDR and his whole thrust was that we can find new ways for the private sector to deal with the problems of poverty, and my feeling was clearly that the war on poverty had not exactly succeeded. So the government had not been particularly effective in dealing with the problems of poverty, and my aim was to get the private sector to step up to the plate as a priority. Then I saw firsthand how this just was not happening. I saw that the private sector was not forthcoming."
Sticking up for the poor and disenfranchised has not been popular in this country since the 1960s, when Lyndon Johnson had his War on Poverty and Robert Kennedy stood with Cesar Chavez and the California migrant workers. It seems that Huffington has rallied to the words of Finley Peter Dunne and his admonition to journalists of his day to "comfort th' afflicted, afflict th' comfortable." "People endow wings of museums," Huffington points out. "A lot of the charity today is fashion-driven. You have money going to museums, or to prestigious education institutes like Harvard, which has an endowment the size of a small country. But crack babies, homelessness—you know you don't want a homeless shelter named after you." After listening to Huffington, you sometimes feel that everything is hopeless, but she remains upbeat: "I think that trends change. If you look at the designated driver campaign—drinking and driving was considered macho. Then suddenly through a combination of the designated driver campaign and MADD, it became antisocial to drink and drive. The kind of shift I want to see is where the president cannot appoint John Snow to be treasury secretary because he was CEO of a company [which] in three out of four years did not pay taxes. Now that should be seen as antisocial behavior in a country where we all have to pay our taxes whether we like it or not."
Huffington's own personal campaign to change America's oil-guzzling addiction is called the Detroit Project. Based on the government's antidrug ads that connect drug use with aiding terrorists, Huffington's ads target the 21% of car owners who own SUVs. Some television stations have even refused to run her ads. "The example of the anti-SUV campaign is interesting," she says. "I wrote a column in which I said, what about creating ads that make the [same] kind of connection that the administration is using taxpayer money to make in the drug war ads. Disgusting. The connection between gas-guzzling SUVs and funding terrorists is much more credible. And then at the end, I said that anyone willing to pay for a people's ad campaign should contact me, and I got over 5,000 e-mails from people. It really moved me. At the same time, completely unbeknownst to us, a group of environmental evangelicals was founding 'What Would Jesus Drive' ads. And then there are other groups around the country doing similar things about fuel efficiency and national security. We did not coordinate," she says, laughing. "That's what I love—it was spontaneous eruptions across the country."
Huffington does not go easy on anyone in this book, especially the likes of Jack Welsh, Dennis Kozlowski, Kenneth Lay or the rest of the usual corporate suspects. "I think there's a sense of fairness in the American people that is now being challenged," Huffington conjectures. "When we see CEOs who destroyed their companies doing well, people who are in favor of the free market should be outraged. Even people who admire Ayn Rand should be outraged because her idea of a CEO is not somebody who drives his company into the ground."
The media takes its fair share of hits from Huffington. She finds no media liberal bias here. "Many in the media did become cheerleaders. You had Kozlowski on the cover of Business Week . They were admired in a curious way for what they called the 'aggressive accounting,' which basically meant 'fraudulent accounting.' You have Enron being picked by Fortune as being one of the most admired companies. So it's as though there was no real investigation going on. Everybody was caught up in the New Economy mystique. And then people are not held accountable. That's why, as journalists, we have this kind of huge responsibility. It's much easier to make semen-on-a-dress stories fun to read. We can make the unemployment story interesting with life and urgency, but it's much harder work."
Although she initially became well-known as the biographer of Picasso and Maria Callas and as a constant pundit on all the networks, Huffington's background is in Keynesian economics. And it was economics and Cambridge that ushered Huffington onto her life adventure, which started in Athens, Greece, where she was born in 1950.
"I had an amazing mother who was completely self-educated," she recalls, "who was just an original. She was in the civil war in Greece, and she was caught by the Germans in the mountains. She met my father in a sanatorium. She was recovering from TB; he was recovering from being in a concentration camp in Germany, having published an underground newspaper." When Huffington was 16, she saw an article in a magazine in Greece about Cambridge. "And like the ugly duckling having a vision of the swan, I said to my mother, 'I want to go to Cambridge!' I had no idea what Cambridge was or anything." She moved to London with her mother when she won a scholarship to Cambridge. "So that's how I ended up going to England," she recalls fondly. "My mom came with me and my younger sister followed, and she went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts."
After writing two undistinguished books, The Female Woman and After Reason, Huffington found herself still living in London, broke. "George Weidenfeld, the English publisher, came to me and said, 'If you want to learn how to write and communicate and convince people, you have to learn how to tell a story. And you don't know how to do that.' He was right. My political book, After Reason, was unreadable," she says. "And he said, you also need money, so he gave me a £6,000 advance, which was a lot of money for me at the time, to write Maria Callas. It was not my idea to write a biography, but it was one of the best things that happened to me because it did change me as a writer. It made me be able to write more with examples and storytelling. Then I was writing a book about the psychological look at the gods [which came out as The Gods of Greece, 1983] when Mort Janklow came to me about writing Picasso. So these two books came to me. But my own passion has always been about politics and ideas."
Both books made the bestseller lists and, as a writer, Huffington was on her way. Picasso was followed by the book on the Greek gods, Picasso: Creator and Destroyer (1988) and The Fourth Instinct (1994). "The theme of that book was for me," she says, "that we all talk about instincts primarily as for survival, sex and power. You can't really explain human behavior without taking into account what I call the 'fourth instinct,' which is our instinct to find meaning in life, our instinct for transcendence, our instinct for our life to be about something more than ourselves or money, the perfect body or the perfect sexual encounter. I believe that it's very, very prevalent, but not sufficiently recognized, so I wanted to write about it. It's been important to me, the spiritual search, which has been eclectic in my case, but I meditate. I just try to integrate that part of life in my daily existence."
Huffington then wrote Greetings from the Lincoln Bedroom (1998), an Alice in Wonderland satirical look at the misadventures of the Clinton administration, which was followed by How to Overthrow the Government (2000), a book that reads like the logical preamble to Pigs at the Trough.
As a writer, Huffington has a full plate. Besides her books, she writes two syndicated columns a week and has a syndicated radio show on NPR. Her writing habits, like her politics, are not put together in the usual fashion. "I dictate my columns," she confesses. "I've been doing my column now for seven years. When I started, it was incredibly painful how long a page would take. Then I realized I was first trained to speak rather than to write at the Cambridge Union. I learned how to get up and give a speech for an hour without notes. I thought to myself, I should start dictating my columns as though they're a speech. And I do write them a little bit like briefs, trying to convince somebody. So my first draft is just dictated. Then I can spend as much time as I have editing, but once you have a first draft it's so much easier. I wrote most of my books on the computer, or the typewriter before the computer, or longhand, so it's a new skill."
As she prepares to hit the publicity trail and college campus speaking circuit, Huffington turns reflective. "I'm optimistic," she says. "I believe this is an amazing moment where a lot of things are happening underground and politicians are missing that moment. They react to little eruptions here and there, but they are not leading it. The next book I want to do is The Leader in the Mirror, because I believe that this is the time for all of us to acknowledge the leader in the mirror. We need to grow up, to stop waiting for the knight on the white horse to save us."