Arianna Huffington, columnist and author of the bestselling Pigs at the Trough: How Corporate Greed and Political Corruption are Undermining America, lives in Los Angeles with her two daughters. Here she discusses her latest book, Fanatics and Fools, and other matters.
Your new book, Fanatics and Fools, is a compendium of George W. Bush's ideologically driven programs, abroad and at home. How do you think this White House is able to deflect the accusations that it tells lies and half-truths? Why do people still see Bush as a good leader?
That's why I called the book Fanatics and Fools: You cannot see one party or one leader in isolation from the opposition, and so the fanatics have been allowed to prevail. We would not have gone into Iraq if the Democrats had actually put up a fight and we would not have had a multi-trillion–dollar tax cut, either. I quote a very telling exchange in the book between Tim Russert and Tom Daschle. Russert asked Daschle, “Well, if you don't like the president's tax cuts, why don't you offer your own alternative?” Daschle replied, “Well, you have to take it one step at a time.”
What is this, an AA meeting? Democratic leaders were acting like enablers up until the primaries. At that point, there was a spine transplant in the Democratic party, basically. The people in the Democratic rank and file revolted during the primaries. And even though Howard Dean lost, the Dean movement changed the agenda. All the other candidates began to sound a very different tune.
Howard Dean played the role that Ralph Nader has been trying to play for years and years.
Yes, but Ralph Nader cannot play this role by running and taking votes away from Kerry. When your house is on fire, it's not time to talk about remodeling. I asked Ralph not to make this decision. So did hundreds of others. I told him this is not 2000. Today the highest priority is getting Bush out of the White House.
It's hard to imagine that you were ever a Republican. What was your thinking? And when was the transition?
I haven't been a Republican since 1996. Basically, I was always a social moderate: pro-choice, pro–gay rights, and pro–gun control. During my Republican interregnum, I believed the private sector would step up to the plate and solve the social problems we're facing. I created the Center for Effective Compassion and tried to raise money for children and for homeless shelters. Then I saw first-hand how difficult that was and that in fact we did need the raw power of government appropriation and an activist government to be able to address the major challenges we're facing. If you look at my columns from 1996 and 1995, they are full of challenges to the Republican party to step up to the plate. When I saw this wasn't going to happen, that's when I registered as an Independent.
Do you think that that failure is just a phase of the Republican Party, or that it never will get around to dealing with poverty in America?
It seems that the trickle-down economic order is prevailing -- the idea that if we take care of business and give business everything it asks for, including loopholes, tax shelters, and corporate welfare, we will create wealth. That's the mantra. And it's a symptom of fanatics that the evidence contradicting the assumption does not change things. No matter how contradictory the facts, they stick to their preconceived notions.
One of my favorite parts of your book is the section of letters of resignation from former employees of the Bush administration. How'd you get them?
I've always been interested in resignation as a tool for public policy. Having lived in England for many years, I know it's used much more frequently there than here. So I'm always on the lookout for people resigning, mainly because I don't think people do it enough and it is such a powerful tool. I mean, look at Colin Powell. If Powell really believed what he told Bob Woodward [about his opposition to the war in Iraq] and had resigned, think about the difference that would have made.
This way, there's nothing to his legacy.
Oh, I think it's destroyed. Clearly. He was one of the people I believed could transform the Republican Party, and now it's clear he's acted in a way which is tragic. And for what?
You write about the parallels between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bush. Yet there was a recent article in Newsweek that says Schwarzenegger is not going to lift a finger to help Bush in California. Any thoughts?
All I know is how he's governing in California -- like a Bush Republican. College cuts, welfare cuts, cutting cost-of-living allowance increases for welfare mothers. I mean, this is punitive, because clearly it's not going to make any difference for the budget. But he does it all with a smile, and the press is mesmerized. Why is it acceptable to cut the rungs in the ladder of opportunity for tens of thousands of students when it is not acceptable -- at least not in the Schwarzenegger administration -- to close corporate tax loopholes that would bring in over six billion dollars?
What will it take to get voters to endorse a platform that would reverse Bush's domestic policies? How do you get people to say, well, we are willing to pay more in order to get more from the government and to see the wealth of our society redistributed?
I'm very interested in how you convince people, especially those who are not planning to vote at the moment. A hundred million eligible people did not vote in 2000 and will probably not vote in 2004 unless we give them a reason to believe this election will be different. [Democratic pollster] Stan Greenberg's latest surveys show corporate tax shelters are issues that appeal across the board. Just look at Accenture, which has a P.O. box as its headquarters and defrauds the American taxpayer of millions in taxes, yet is awarded a $10 billion contract for the homeland security office -- this will outrage the American public if it's made clear to them. These are not right-left issues. These are right-wrong issues. It's about fairness. If there's one thing that gets Americans, it's unfairness.
You've written about trying to get single women to vote. Why do you think it's so hard to get women following politics, running for office, or even voting?
[Single women] are more progressive than married women, and 22 million of them did not vote in the last election; 16 million of them are not even registered. Looking at the surveys Anna Greenberg has done, you see that a lot of them don't believe politics makes a difference to their lives. They care about health care, good schools, and clean air, but they are disconnected from politics. That's why it's important to reach out to them. If they came out to vote in the same percentages that married women do, it would make a big difference.
I want to ask you about John Kerry.
It's not going to be enough to have a brilliant critique of the administration. The Democratic nominee needs to offer a broad alternative moral vision for America.
How do you think he's doing, both in term of what you consider to be central issues, such as fighting poverty and reclaiming taxes as a positive word, and more generally in terms of the optimism and leadership you write about?
He has been speaking about these things but he has not yet connected the dots. From his first official speech of 1952 until the end, [Ronald] Reagan spoke about the same things. Karl Rove is trying to fit the Reagan mantle of optimism and faith in America onto Bush, but Kerry can prove it doesn't fit. Kerry's campaign can show that Bush's vision has been dark and filled with fear-mongering.
How can John Kerry sing to America?
I think that is the key question. The John Kerry narrative begins on June 5, 1968, when he was coming home from Vietnam. It was the night [Robert F.] Kennedy was assassinated. [Kerry's] given a speech about how he felt [that night], listening to the news from the Ambassador Hotel over a crackling radio. That was his coming of age as a leader. It culminated three years later in the speech he gave to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee challenging the leadership of his country to get out of the war in Vietnam. In that speech, he quoted Bobby Kennedy's famous phrase, which Kennedy took from [George] Bernard Shaw: Some people look at things and ask why, I dream of things that never were and ask why not. He should link this to his agenda: Why not access to health care for everyone, clean air, good schools?
You talk about the “people wing” of the Democratic Party. Do you think Kerry, with his background in the Senate and the Northeast can do what Howard Dean has done?
I think Kerry has to be authentic, above all, and he has to do it in his own way. I believe he's somebody who can offer this vision convincingly. He just has to make it central to what he's saying and to who he is. Instead of focusing on whether he should get media training, and move his hands more and all those other stupid things that will never work, he needs to speak of his big things in a consistent way, not just once in a while.
And the big thing you think he can communicate to America is …
That we can be a country that once again makes the next breakthrough on this journey toward a more just society. We've been regressing in the last three years, and it's time for the next breakthrough. And that breakthrough means we put hard-working Americans first. And that the economic order of the day will be trickle-up, and not trickle-down. And on the foreign-policy front, it means we will be serious about the war on terror and not pursue preemptive imperialist adventures. And that means solidifying our alliances abroad and strengthening our defense at home.
Are you going to run for office again?
I have no desire to run again. I consider myself like a crusading journalist. I saw [the California recall race] as a very unusual election. I was a candidate for seven weeks; I could run as a candidate without a party, a machine, or a lot of money and still get a lot of ideas out. If another opportunity like that arises, maybe. Right now, all my energy between now and November is going to be dedicated to doing my part to defeat George Bush.
Sarah Blustain is deputy editor of The American Prospect.