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Arianna Huffington's ideological transformation

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, February 9, 2011;

Did Arianna Huffington just sell out her fellow progressives?

In the literal sense, she undoubtedly has: The sale of Huffington Post to AOL for $315 million (including a large pile of cash going to Huffington herself) means this powerful liberal voice is formally joining the "corporate media" its writers have long disparaged.

There are also some indications that she has sold out in the ideological sense and committed the Huffington Post to joining the mainstream media - the evil "MSM" of "HuffPo" blogger ire. Announcing the deal, she and her new boss went out of their way to say that the new Huffington Post would emphasize things other than the liberal politics on which the brand was built.

AOL Chairman Tim Armstrong said he thinks "Arianna has the same interest we do, which is serving consumers' needs and going beyond the just straight political needs of people." Huffington agreed, boasting that only 15 percent of her eponymous site's traffic is for politics (that's down from 50 percent a couple of years ago), and she emphasized that politics is just one of two dozen "sections," including a new one devoted to covering divorces.

"It's time for all of us in journalism to move beyond left and right," Huffington said Monday on PBS's "NewsHour." "Truly, it is an obsolete way of looking at the problems America is facing."

That is almost exactly what Huffington said in 2000, when she was making her last ideological transformation, from a conservative Republican into a liberal icon. "The old distinctions of right and left, Democrat, Republican, are pretty obsolete," she told Fox News then.

It's a stock line for Huffington, but if she and Armstrong are taken at their word, they are planning a radical reshaping of what had become an important voice for liberalism and a gleeful participant in the left-right game. "It can no longer be denied: the right-wing lunatics are running the Republican asylum and have infected the entire country and poisoned the world beyond," Huffington wrote in her 2008 book, "Right is Wrong ."

This transformation should come as no surprise to anybody who has followed Huffington's remarkable career. Greek-born and Cambridge-educated, she has always been on the move ideologically, from her early squabbles with feminism to her role as a minister with the new-age Movement for Spiritual Inner Awareness, from her membership in Newt Gingrich's brain trust to her stint as populist activist - all before her greatest act, the Huffington Post.

I say this with admiration. Huffington deserves every one of those millions she'll be paid by AOL for creating this online sensation. She was once derided as "the most upwardly mobile Greek since Icarus" because of her many well-connected friends, but Huffington has earned her place as one of the extraordinary personalities of our time: an entrepreneur and writer who is always chasing the next big idea, wherever it is on the ideological spectrum.

Yet this is also why Huffington and her Web site are unlikely to remain as they were. Anybody who expects her to continue as a reliable voice of the left is a poor student of Huffington history.

I first came across Huffington in 1995, when she was working at Gingrich's Progress and Freedom Foundation, preaching social consciousness to fellow conservatives. She railed against "big government" and pronounced: "We do our part and God meets us halfway. That's why I'm a conservative."

That version of Huffington called for strict immigration restrictions. She favored Bill Clinton's resignation and floated the rumor that a former ambassador had been buried in Arlington because Clinton had slept with his wife.

By that time, she had already had many ideological meanderings, beginning with a book called "The Female Woman" (seen as anti-feminist) and continuing to a biography portraying Picasso as a misogynist (seen as a feminist tract). She had also been heavily involved in campaigns by her then-husband, a Republican, for the House and Senate.

But in the late 1990s, Huffington began to reinvent herself. She covered the '96 political conventions for Comedy Central with Al Franken. She broke with Gingrich. She disparaged Bob Dole. She promoted Warren Beatty for president. She published a book favoring campaign finance reform. In 2000, she hosted a "shadow convention" protesting both parties.

She later explained the "transformation" of her political views by saying the right had "seduced, fooled, blinded, bamboozled" her.

That's crazy talk. Nobody bamboozles Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington. If anybody was fooled, it was those who believed she would be a more enduring progressive than she was a conservative.

danamilbank@washpost.com

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