It was 10:15 on a soupy Philadelphia night and Arianna Huffington was already running behind in getting her revolution started. Ms. Huffington–the helmet-haired columnist, Maria Callas biographer, neo-con talking head, and former doting spouse of moneybags Republican Senate hopeful Michael Huffington–was supposed to be four blocks away at a modest little restaurant called the White Dog Cafe, hosting a party for a group of disenfranchised activists called the Shadow Convention.
Trying to capitalize on the political disenchantment corralled by Ross Perot, Jesse Ventura and the rest of the Reform party, the Shadow Convention aimed to bring some star-powered gloss to the amply covered fringe movements of both the Republican and Democratic conventions.
But Ms. Huffington seemed torn as to whether she was in Philadelphia to effect change for the good of the people or for more personal reasons. And she began the night of July 31 bathed in flashbulb light in the Grand Hall of Drexel University, where the cable network Comedy Central was fêting its own fringe center coverage of the Republican National Convention.
Though Ms. Huffington actually became something of a household name after appearing regularly on Bill Maher’s Comedy Central show Politically Incorrect before it jumped to network television, she wrinkled her nose when she saw such New York media machers as Vote.com head Carl Bernstein, Salon ‘s Jake Tapper, CNN’s Roger Cossack, George editor in chief Frank Lalli and columnist Mickey Kaus filing into Comedy Central’s party, and not hers.
Ms. Huffington was accompanied by Gail Gross, the prominent Houston socialite and Buddhist, who described herself as “a sister to [Ms. Huffington] for the past 20 years,” and with her well-sprayed hard hat of black hair, looked the part. Ms. Gross explained that the two had come straight from the convention floor, where Ms. Huffington had participated in “some kind of dialogue.” Ms. Huffington did a quick lap around the party, urging anyone she saw to come down the block and cover the Shadow Convention. Ms. Gross did her part too. Warmly sheathed in a rich brown pantsuit and brown slip-on shoes that showed off brown-painted toenails, she’d approached CNN’s Mr. Cossack and offered him a lift to the White Dog. When The Observer asked Ms. Gross if Ms. Huffington’s goal was to poach Comedy Central guests for her own event, she rolled her eyes and said “Maybe so.” But there were few takers and Ms. Huffington finally decided to head to her own party with The Observer and two other journalists in tow.
Her decision to bite the bullet and take her leave came just as Mr. Stewart walked through the entrance and was immediately swarmed by clicking photographers.
In order to exit, Ms. Huffington and Ms. Gross had to slither to the door around the writhing donut of journalists surrounding the Daily Show host. As Ms. Huffington strode out unnoticed, she brushed past one of the giant television screens showing a constant loop tape of Mr. Stewart’s greatest Comedy Central moments. Almost to the door, Ms. Huffington threw a look over her tall shoulder at the short comedian who was, as one event staffer was saying at that moment to someone on the other end of her cell phone, “totally the center of a cluster fuck!”
Ms. Huffington’s elegantly angled nose twitched, her eyebrows furrowed slightly. But before she could put the Greek evil eye on Mr. Stewart, she was through the door and back in the West Philadelphia soup. Ms. Huffington settled for stopping a journalist who was on his way into the Comedy Central party. “We have our own party,” she told the slightly flummoxed man. “You should come to our party.”
On the steps of Grand Hall, Ms. Gross banged out numbers on a StarTac and said that she was trying to summon Curtis, their town-car driver. Several botched phone calls later, Curtis pulled up, Ms. Gross called shot-gun, and Ms. Huffington good-naturedly wedged herself into the back seat, mashing thighs with The Observer , Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Peter Dobrin, and photographer Scott Hamrich. But the tight squeeze didn’t faze her, and she immediately started handing out credentials, noting that sporting a plastic-crusted card around your neck now seems to have more cache than a paper invitation. Asked about the state of political discourse in the country right now, Ms. Huffington replied “I think it’s at its nadir. That’s why we need a Shadow Convention.” She said that she’d been at the First Union Center all day, lamenting “I have to get a column out of it for Thursday!” “If I have to hear one more ‘Leave no child behind” I’m going to be sick.”
The Shadow Convention party was an hour-and-a-half old when Ms. Huffington unfolded herself from the back seat, her suit remarkably unwrinkled. She gathered her small entourage and walked into the White Dog. The restaurant was nearly empty, and a look of horror momentarily spread across Ms. Huffington’s face. But she was immediately scooped up and led to a tent in back of the restaurant, where there was dancing, some limp looking sushi, a cash-bar, and a lot of sticky people wishing they were in the air-conditioned restaurant. Ms. Huffington must have felt the same way. She spent about 10 minutes in the tent before beating a hasty retreat back inside, to a room where her sister was waiting. Ms. Huffington held court there until she was ushered back outside to make her speech about 15 minutes later.
Judy Wicks, owner of the White Dog Cafe, introduced the Shadow Convention leader to a round of loud applause from the mostly Philadelphia-based crowd. Ms. Huffington stepped to the middle of the tent, grabbed a mike, assessed the crowd, and made like Shecky Green in the Catskills. She started by taking a big swing at the “real” Convention. “We had a phenomenal day today on the corruption of money and politics. And speaking of the corruption of money and politics, I just came from the R.N.C. convention and oh my God it’s the Home Shopping Network with music!”
Ms. Huffington went on to tout the rest of the week. “Tomorrow we’re having an incredible day. It’ll be a breakthrough day on the failure of the drug war,” she said. Then she introduced Ethan Nadelman of the Drug Policy Foundation, who took the mike and told the crowd that the next day’s forum would include appearances by “kids who’ve had their parents incarcerated on nonviolent drug charges from around the country. This is going to be the start, we hope, of a serious new anti-war movement, to end the war on drugs,” Mr. Nadelman said.
One tall dreadlocked party-goer shouted: “Will you be giving out free samples?” and got a big laugh.
Ms. Huffington took the mike back to announce that the following day would also see the first of three cabaret programs that had been planned for the convention. “We’re calling it Satire With a Purpose, right?” she said. “Everything at the other place, at the RNC convention, it’s with a purpose. Al Franken said that tomorrow night Newt Gingrich is giving a speech. He’s calling it ‘Adultery with a Purpose'” This got another huge guffaw from the crowd.
“Then Wednesday is poverty day!”, Ms. Huffington said a bit too forcefully before introducing Chuck Collins from United for a Fair Economy.
After her speech, Ms. Huffington ran into Jonathan Kozol, author of Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation , near the steam table. Putting her arm around his waist, Ms. Huffington stood engaged in conversation with Mr. Kozol for quite some time. The image of Mr. Kozol, a lifetime lefty, embracing Ms. Huffington was a sight to behold. And when she excused herself to leave, Mr. Kozol, who was decked out like a sweaty, aging rabble-rouser in his round wire-rimmed glasses, short-sleeved khaki Lee flack jacket, and blue deck shoes, took his plastic cup of beer to a cooler, quieter spot away from the crowd, and fessed up about his devotion.
Mr. Kozol took a deep breath as though he were about to confess something from deep within. He explained that four months ago, Ms. Huffington contacted him to talk about his work. She’d recently read one of his books, he couldn’t remember which, he said. He agreed to meet with her in Washington. “I did it with some trepidation, because I knew nothing of the political journey she’s taken,” he said. “I simply remembered her name as the name of a conservative intellectual from the 1980’s. I don’t watch television very much, so I remembered her from the Reagan years. She seemed my polar opposite.”
Then, over the course of six meetings with Ms. Huffington, including one that took place shortly after her father died, Mr. Kozol changed his mind. “I found Arianna, well how can I say it?” Mr. Kozol said, tenderly. “Well first of all, she’s one of the most truly deeply spiritual people I’ve ever met. It’s not bullshit. It’s not fluff. And I hear plenty of fluff all the time. I mean what I believe in is what people tell you when they’re alone – when they’ve suffered the way she had that week that her father died– when they’re not performing for the public.
“I think she’s a sincerely self-questioning person who’s shaken at the recognition of how rough it is for the poorest kids in the country. She does not come to me with the mild, philanthropic suggestions of a settlement house volunteer, but with the political sensibilities of a rebel,” he continued. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Arianna started writing for a magazine like The Nation any day now. In fact, I predict it.” Mr. Kozol even had a return flight from the West Coast rerouted so that he could stop into Ms. Huffington’s convention. He wasn’t sorry. “It’s one of the most politically intense gatherings I’ve attended since 1968,” he intoned. Those few people who were left at the party were dancing their hearts out to James Brown. They seemed to agree with Mr. Kozol that something special was going on.
While Ms. Huffington was still in the tent pressing the flesh with party-goers such as Mr. Kozol, Ms. Gross was inside the restaurant, fretting over a copy of “The Philadelphia Enquirer ,” a Shadow send-up of Philly’s local paper. “Can you believe Bush actually said this?” she asked the Observer . She was referring to a two-paragraph front-page “story” by “Julie Capulet” entitled “Bush Offers GOP Donors Money Back Guarantee.” Ms. Gross looked especially aghast at the second paragraph, which quoted the Texas Governor as saying “‘My daddy always said, ‘Son, the contributor is always right. When a Bush is bought, he stays bought.'” When The Observer suggested that the edition of the paper might be a joke, Ms. Gross examined it closely and said “Well, I certainly hope so!”
At the table next to Ms. Gross sat Ms. Huffington’s younger sister, Agapi Stassinopoulos, author of Conversations with the Goddesses: Revealing the Divine Power Within You . She explained that she’d arrived at the Shadow Convention from the Greek National Convention in New Orleans, where she’d spoken to “1,200 Greeks about the Goddesses.”
“I am in great support of what Arianna is doing,” said Ms. Stassinopoulos with a Greek accent. “I am behind the vision and what they’re trying to do and the issues.
What part of the vision? The Observer asked.
“Everything that has to do with the drug war,” Ms. Stassinopoulos said. “Everything that has to do with the rich and the poor and about finance reform. These are issues I totally support.” She admitted that political conventions are not typically her bag. “I came in completely through Arianna. Politics is not my world,” she explained. “But I think it’s an eye-opener. I’m learning a lot.”
Ms. Stassinopoulos also confessed that she has not always followed her sister’s other political incarnations with as much interest. “She does what she does and I do what I do, so I watch her do what she’s doing and I support her because I love her.”
Ms. Stassinopoulos went on to explain a little bit about her own work. “I studied acting in London, and I studied psychology. I was very interested in mythology and the mythological archetypes and how they relate in our lives, and how they influence our lives and how they act out in our lives,” she said. “I worked with Arianna on a book she wrote on the gods of Greece which came out about 8 years ago.”
Ms. Stassinopoulos said that in Conversations with the Goddesses , she asserts that are seven archetypes of women, and that she attempts to connect these archetypes to famous women such as Amelia Earhart, Susan Sontag, Susan B. Anthony and Golda Meir.
Ms. Stassinopoulos said that she had a lot of Persephone in her. “She was very close to her mother, I’m very close to my mother. She goes through her own journey: Hades abducts her and rapes her and takes her to the underworld, which means you are abducted from your own reality to another reality and your world changes.” Ms. Stassinopoulos didn’t exactly say what part of her life paralleled this journey, but she did say that she had undertaken “a tremendous journey like that.” She also related to Aphrodite, she said, “because I relate to that part of myself which is beauty and sensuality and passion. I have a lot of passion,” said Ms. Stassinopoulos.
Asked what archetypes might apply to her sister Arianna, Ms. Stassinopoulos said: “She has a lot of Athena–leadership–look at what she’s doing. She takes an idea and drives it forward and gets people to be part of it to support it. And Demeter–because she’s a mother and she has a lot of that quality of being the mother to the children.”
Ms. Huffington drifted back into the restaurant from pressing the flesh and huddled with her sister and Ms. Gross, who looked wiped out and could be heard talking in hushed tones about getting back to their hotel rooms.
Over in a corner, Weekly Standard writer Matt Labash and Inside.com reporter David Carr sat in a corner and talked about a party that Dorian Gray-like on-air personality Dick Clark had hosted earlier in the day.
Mr. Labash had been to the party and he said that he had seen singers FrankieValli,Bobby Rydell and other people that “you think are dead.” At that, Mr. Carr asked: “How many times have you played dead-not dead at this convention?”
A few moments later, Ms. Huffington gave the high sign to the troops and the three women headed for the car. Ms. Gross again attempted to locate Curtis and the car, while Ms. Huffington gave some final soundbites on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant. It was midnight and although her entourage looked rather bedraggled, Ms. Huffington appeared crisp and alert. “I’m not seducing people here,” she was saying. “This is about the issues.”
Curtis arrived, and Ms. Huffington, Ms. Gross, and Ms. Stassinopoulos clambered in, blowing good-night kisses and extending warm hands in farewell. They drove off.
Twenty minutes later, back at the Comedy Central party, Ms. Huffington was standing outside nursing a glass of white wine and chatting up Harry Shearer. She focused her attention only on him. Mr. Carr was back at the Comedy Central party as well, elaborating on his dead-not dead theory about the R.N.C. He explained that the Tempations had played at an event earlier in the day and that Lynyrd Skynyrd was scheduled for Tuesday or Wednesday. “See?” he said with the fervor of a conspiracy theorist. “Are they dead or not dead?”
John McCain showed no sign of shock when he walked into a dinner honoring him at a trendy Philadelphia Asian fusion restaurant called Buddakan on July 31 and got a load of the 10-foot-tall golden statue of Buddha staring down at him from a raised platform.
Mr. McCain, the former Republican Presidential hopeful who spent five years of his youth locked in the notorious Hanoi Hilton prisoner of war camp in Southeast Asia, and who based his failed Presidential campaign on a dedication to the values of God-fearing folk, seemed like he belonged in a place that served steaks and creamed spinach, not Buddhist statuary. But there he was, standing next to his wife, Cindy–who wore a jeweled American flag pin and uttered barely a word all evening–taking a good long look at the bare-bellied fiberglass idol surrounded by votive candles. Mr. McCain opened his mouth and let out that familiar controlled belly laugh of his. “You know, we’ll try anything,” he said, apparently forgetting for a moment that he was no longer campaigning for anything. “We heard from a number of very reliable people that this was a really great spot. That’s one of the reasons why we’re here.”
Then he stopped a waitress who was circulating with an appetizer tray, plucked a stalk of tempura asparagus with his good hand, took a hard look at it and popped the whole thing into his mouth, dumping the skewer and cocktail napkin on a nearby table.
Mr. McCain was not behaving quite like the gregarious campaigner he was but a few months ago. In the hour that he stayed, Mr. McCain and his wife drank nothing, and stayed within fifteen feet of the exit, and after every “Good to see yuh,” seemed to be edging closer and closer to the door. Perhaps his mood had something to do with his appearance the previous afternoon as the kickoff speaker for the Shadow Convention, where Mr. McCain had been roundly booed.
“Look,” he explained. “It’s an eclectic group, with some people who are from different parts of the political spectrum. And I certainly didn’t expect everyone in that room to say, ‘hey, this is a good guy, just because he’s for campaign finance reform. But, ” Mr. McCain added, “the fun part is to do things like that. What’s the sense in politics in not going out and talking to people that may not agree with ya?” Mr. McCain did not seem so Zen the day before. When the booing started in earnest, he had snapped at the audience, asking them whether he should bother to continue.
But at Buddakan, despite the apparent draw of the exit, Mr. McCain was still able to wear his game face. At one point, former Philadelphia mayor and Democratic National Committee head, Ed Rendell, who was wearing a yellow tie covered with elephants clad in boxer shorts, leapt into his path. Thrusting his hand out, Mr. Rendell shouted, “There’s still time for Gore- McCain!” Mr. McCain smiled. Then a software entrepreneur from New York named Howard Miller put his hand on Mr. McCain’s chest and told him that Sephardic Jews use physical touch as a show of respect. Mr. Miller went on to say that, through this physical connection, Mr. McCain would forever be a part of his life. Mr. McCain actually began to bow slowly when Mr. Miller did his schtick, but the senator perked right up when Mr. Miller finished solemnly touching Mr. McCain’s chest. “Great!” he chirped, to Mr. Miller, who seemed to be deeply affected by it all.
At a corner table, a woman named Jan Squires, the wife of James Squires, a Republican running for governor of New Hampshire, was turning around in her seat and admiring the cover on her chair back. It was an image of Mr. McCain, wearing a puckish grin, that had been silkscreened on 25 of the dining room chairs. The Observer asked Ms. Squires how she felt about sitting on Mr. McCain’s head. She said that rather than sitting on his head, she preferred to think that “he’s backing me up.”
A moment after The Observer left her table, Ms. Squires began to scan the room to see if anybody was watching. Quickly, she pulled the cover off and shoved it in her pocketbook. When she caught The Observer ‘s eye, she put her index finger to her lips. “You don’t know me,” she said, with a wink. –A.G.
At 12:30 a.m., just about the time that the convertible Mustang emerged from the dark on 31st Street, blasting oldies and transporting two pink costumed pigs with “CUT THE PORK!” signs, things started to get a bit strange at the Great Court of Drexel University’s Main Building, where things were slowly winding down at the Comedy Central party. Jon Stewart and Ben Stein had left the building. So had Bill Bradley, much earlier in the evening, a fact that had Daily Show commentator Mo Rocca a little suspicious. “Arianna was stealthily lurking around this party, skulking around, poaching our A-list guests,” he said, conspiratorially. Mr. Rocca, a wiry fellow who before joining the Daily Show had been the editor of Perfect 10s magazine, wasn’t afraid to point some fingers. “And Bill Bradley? We knew he was here earlier. I saw her skulking about and then he was gone.”
Then, as if on cue, when Eminem’s “‘The Real Slim Shady” boomed over the loudspeakers, Carl Bernstein and his date, Sharon Kaufman, head of Kaufman Astoria studios, burst into the hall and did a quick once around the room. As a white stretch limousine idled in front of the building, George editor in chief Frank Lalli bound out the doors and down the carpet-lined steps, and into the limo as if he’d just been released by nuns for summer vacation. “Somebody stop that man before he runs into traffic!” called Peter Keating, a George senior writer, after Mr. Lalli had galloped past him on the steps. Then Madeleine Smithberg, the executive producer of The Daily Show , stood on the steps and threw herself in front of an MTV Choose or Lose camera. She looked a little wobbly. “Jon Stewart’s presenting this, and they’re giving us no credentials,” she shouted, wagging her finger at the camera. “No parking! I’m sleeping in a fucking dorm! The Democrats are welcoming us with open arms. We have a liaison! And that’s all I have to say. How am I voting? Al Gore!” Then somebody took hold of her and helped her down the steps into a waiting limousine.
Inside Mr. Rocca was pondering why there didn’t seem to be any more excitement associated with the Republican National Convention.” I guess compassion is pretty boring,” he theorized. “It feels warm and fuzzy.” Mr. Rocca thought what he’d just said. “I guess as warm and fuzzy as cop-killer bullets can be.