"Totally Nuts," was the flavor of Ben & Jerry's ice cream passed out at the Shadow Convention last night. It also perfectly describes the spectacle of long-time leftists, headline-chasing academics, slipping politicians, and disenfranchised youth giving credence to Arianna Huffington's latest crusade to keep media attention on her.
Her story thus far: Huffington, once best-known as the author of an anti-feminist manifesto and a controversial book about Picasso, and as a devotee of California guru John-Roger, went on a political shopping spree in the early 1990s. She stole her trust-fund-baby husband Michael's checkbook and surprised him with a $3 million GOP House seat in 1992. Then Arianna settled down to being the hostess with the mostest among D.C.'s Gingrich conservative set. But she became disillusioned with money and politics when they stopped working for her. Despite spending close to $30 million in 1994, the year when the Republicans actually took full control of Congress for the first time since the Eisenhower years, her hubby proved too vacuous to move up to the Senate.
Having shot his wad and having failed at buying a permanent place in D.C. society, Huffington's husband Michael came out of the closet and admitted his long-time homosexuality. Arianna, too, came out of a closet, one far less sympathy-inducing than the one her now-ex-husband vacated: She now rails against money in politics. It's as if Merle Haggard signed on as a pitch man for Alcoholics Anonymous instead of just writing a song, "The Bottle Let Me Down," after a particularly fruitless bender.
No matter, Patriotic Hall was packed last night for the inaugural night of the Shadow Convention West. Unable to enter the hall, men and women, boys and girls, were huddled around two TV sets in the lobby to hear truth: Big money corrupts politics, the drug war sucks, and we spend too much money on the military and not enough on premium ice cream. Maybe two out of three ain't bad.
Rep. Tom Campbell, a Republican congressman from California running hopelessly for the Senate this cycle, declared, "PAC money is political crack." He told the audience that he had sworn it off, which, along with an expressed deep concern for blacks and Hispanics, didn't assuage everyone. "He's still voting for Bush," shouted the guy sitting in front of me. "Ask him if he'll vote for Trent Lott."
Emperor of Ice Cream Ben Cohen gave a presentation on "Oreo economics," demonstrating with stacks of $10 billion Oreos how we could solve our problems by redistributing cookies from the Pentagon to the smaller stacks of education and Head Start, that legendary feel-good government program whose benefits have never quite been documented. He followed up with a rap performance that was too painful to describe.
Comedian and Democratic activist Bill Maher called Gore "Grand Master Cash," before adding, "If you'd been running around the country collecting money as much as Bush has, you'd do cocaine too." Maher knows all about the rigors of raising soft money–those unregulated large sums of cash that fat cats donate directly to the national Democratic and Republican parties for vague "party-building" activities. While he's too cheap to pony up much dough himself, Maher headlined in June a soft money fund-raiser for the Democratic National Committee (Maher pal Bill Clinton was the guest of honor). Maher treaded on another sensitive path when he asked, "Why not cut out the middle man–voting–and [just] hire the guy who raises the most money?" Maybe Arianna Huffington could point out why that's easier said than done.
Hypocrisy may have been glossed over onstage, but it was duly noted by some participants, especially those who came for the issues, not the Chuck D concert that followed the speechifying. Some, like Charles McGee from San Jose, are just happy to use Huffington's confab as a way of advancing their own freakazoid issues. Says McGee, "Basically you have to take what you can get from people and leave the rest." He wants individuals to only be able to sit on one corporate board–that's his quick fix for the multinational juggernaut that's he's sure is killing the planet. "If you limit board seats to one per person," said McGee, "you'll pull the linchpin on this and eventually win."
Michael Schmier refused to comment on Huffington's motives or past. He's afraid it'll take away from the passion of his life, a campaign to require courts to publish all of their decisions. (Did you know that 93 percent of appeal court decisions are not published?) "I think it is one of the only real issues out there," says Schmier. "I think we could all agree that we need better education, that's really not an issue. [Not publishing court decisions] is something that's not known, that's poisoning us, that's robbing us of a system, it constitutes a siege of our legal system by our own judges."
Others came for the entertainment. "Actually, we wanted to see the Chuck D concert," Deena Karagianes, a 25 year-old labor organizer from Sacramento, told me when I asked what attracted her to Patriotic Hall. She's on the protest circuit with her friend Elizabeth Kennedy. "One of the things I was thinking when I was in there was: Who is this woman? What brought her to organize this?" says Elizabeth, who now wants to research Huffington's past. "It doesn't surprise me in the world of politics that someone would have other interests besides bringing light to American people about the situation of American government."
"You wonder if she changes her political views just to be convenient or if she really believes what she's saying now," says Adrienne Brown, a 19-year old anthropology student at California State University at Fullerton. Brown recognizes that money can't buy office. But taking the dough, she says, makes our pols total pussies and she longs for a more vibrant politics. "None of them will speak out and say anything," she says, a half-eaten "Totally Nuts" ice cream bar in her hand. "They have people who tell them, 'This is what your constituents want.'"
Though she looked askance at the suggestion that Arianna might be into campaign finance reform for less than pure reasons, she granted, "I can see how she might be using it to gain power."
Brown was wearing an anti-drug war button but claimed to not be stoned and to never have done drugs. "It's not because of the law," she explained, "but for my health." Sounding a lot like New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, she said, "I don't do soda either, but the law didn't have to tell me that. I don't drink milk, and I know that the dairy has so much money." When I pointed out that the ice cream bar in her hand is a milk product, she confessed. "I do eat ice cream, I can't help it," she admitted. "I eat cheese cake, but I don't drink milk anymore."
The interview was melting faster than the ice cream. Brown's friends, Noah and Natalie, asked me if I was on drugs. I said no, but considering the demands of my job, I could use some speed. They couldn't help me, but wanted to know if I could get them some pot (Brown, I assume, would have passed). Sadly, I couldn't help them there and, with the Chuck D concert starting up, they headed inside.