Free Arianna

Cliff Rothman

Arianna Huffington
I’m thinking of printing a new T-shirt—Free Arianna—to go on the rack next to the Martha Stewart version.

That society sets a double standard for power and gender is nothing new, but recently I’ve experienced it up close and personal and it’s pretty disturbing.

As a journalist, I’ve worked with Arianna Huffington, the candidate for California governor, who withdrew from the race in an effort to help prevent an Arnold Schwarzenegger victory. As an activist, I was involved in helping her in organizing The Shadow Convention here in 2000. I also am her friend.

As I watched Martha Stewart skewered in the press and by the government, I experienced a visceral indignation. If she were not a strong, powerful woman, even her obvious hot buttons would not have elicited the widespread animosity and desire to punish her.

And I’ve watched it happening again with Huffington. Since she and Arnold Schwarzenegger announced their candidacy on the same day, the press has slathered all over Arnold, while it directed a steady barrage of slurs at Huffington: She’s a bad mother. She’s a hypocrite. She’s a tax dodger. She’s an opportunist. She’s reinvented herself.

The Huffington portrayed in the media is like something out of the Twilight Zone. Those who know her marvel at her aptitude and public consciousness. Discounting the esteem in which we hold her, she is on all levels certainly as competent as Arnold Schwarzenegger or Cruz Bustamante, neither of whom regularly are pilloried by the press.

I don’t have a clear sense of how the leading candidates would govern or what their aptitude is, but I do know that Huffington is among the brightest, most enlightened and most competent people I’ve known. I trust her abilities to propose and implement progressive policy solutions that might involve compromise but would also shake up the status quo.

Which brings up the S-word: sexism. If Huffington were a man, the fact that she is unarguably charming, rich, good looking, flamboyant and ambitious (or, lacking in humility) would engender admiration not animosity. Men who are opportunist-a given among powerful leaders-are seen as go-getters and initiators. An ambitious woman is suspect. The first negative story that broke-that she paid no state taxes and only $771 in federal taxes-glossed over the fact that she paid nearly $150,000 in property and employee payroll taxes and donated a quarter of her income to charity.

As for the endless accusations of her re-invention: California is the mother of re-invention, that is redefining who you are and who you want to be. She was conservative, now she’s a progressive liberal. Huffington is hardly alone in growing increasingly aware of social inequities and the government’s responsibility to act responsibly. Like most people I too have personally evolved. My priorities have shifted, as have my career and personal goals. Guess what? It’s called growth-unless you want to spin it as a negative.

Does she have human frailties like vanity, hubris, ego and unresolved dark areas? Yes, but so to do Schwarzenegger, Grey Davis and Bustamante and Tom McClintock. Let’s get real: Almost all leaders are part idealists and part egoists with something to prove.

So let’s give Huffington a break and judge her on the same terms as we would a man.

Cliff Roth­man is founder of Media in Action, a new Los Ange­les-based proac­tive media group, and con­tribut­ing jour­nal­ist to Van­i­ty Fair and the New York Times.
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