Watching Arianna Huffington on MSNBC recently, I was struck once again with the way this political Proteus has transformed herself from a right-wing pundit and spoiled little rich girl into a left-wing pundit and tough-talking populist.
I don’t know how seriously to take Ms. Huffington or her transformation. There are more than a few who claim she is nothing more than an opportunist, and there is plenty of evidence to support that charge. But whatever she is, she is passionate about it.
For Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington, it’s been a long, strange trip indeed. Born in Greece in 1950, she immigrated to Great Britain at age 16 to study at Girton College and Cambridge University. At 21 she was president of the prestigious Cambridge Union Society and graduated the next year with a degree in economics.
Over the next quarter century, she had relationships with several prominent men of politics and letters. She was freelancing for National Review and hanging around with the California GOP crowd when she met petroleum heir and Bush family friend Michael Huffington in 1985. They married a year later, and Michael Huffington moved to California to establish residency and win the Santa Barbara County seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1992.
Two years later, he challenged U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, spending $28 million in a bitter and unsuccessful campaign — the most expensive non-presidential campaign ever waged until that time. Throughout her husband’s brief political career, Arianna Huffington stood by her man, campaigned with him, and was widely thought to be measuring the White House windows for curtains.
The Huffingtons divorced in 1997. Arianna began her leftward drift, running for governor of California against Arnold Schwarzenegger in a truly ugly campaign in 2003 and endorsing John Kerry for president in 2004. She has since been closely associated with Democratic Party politics. In 2006, she was named to the Time 100, Time magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people.
Maybe I’m crazy, but I see a parallel between the adventures of Arianna Huffington and the recent misadventures of our first lady, Jenny Sanford. The analogy is not perfect, of course, but it is close enough to merit a serious look.
Jenny Sanford has also been accused of political and social opportunism. She clearly enjoyed the ride to the top of state politics when her husband’s star was rising. And she was not the least bit coy earlier in the year when Mark Sanford was being touted in some Republican circles as the man to beat Barack Obama in 2012.
But she wasn’t just a sightseer on her husband’s career train. She was the manager of his first congressional campaign in 1994 and his first gubernatorial campaign in 2002. And she was more than a nuts-and-bolts operator. By most accounts she worked closely with her husband in his early Statehouse days, serving as his gatekeeper and enforcer. When Sen. John Kuhn of Charleston emerged as a strong and early critic of her husband in 2003, it was Jenny who maneuvered Kuhn into an embarrassing physical confrontation in the Statehouse and ultimately got him replaced by Sanford ally Chip Campsen.
Now this Cinderella story has come to an end. With revelations last June that her husband was having an affair with an Argentine woman, and with subsequent charges of ethical misconduct in office, Mark Sanford has less of a political future than John Kuhn. As for the Sanford marriage, well, that doesn’t look too promising, either. Jenny and their four sons moved out of the Governor’s Mansion last August and returned to the family home on Sullivan’s Island.
It looks like this smart, attractive, 47-year-old heiress is suddenly going to have a lot of time on her hands. And it seems reasonable that she may have an existential crisis on her hands as well. Yes, she told Vogue magazine in a feature story last September that her children are the focus and purpose of her life, and nothing in marriage or politics changes that.
But she surprised a lot of people last month when she wrote a letter endorsing Rep. Nikki Haley (R-Lexington) in next year’s GOP gubernatorial race against four hairy Y-chromosome candidates. What are we to make of this? Is Jenny ready to get back in the game? Does she want to quarterback another campaign? Maybe become a candidate herself?
Early indications are that she is widely admired in South Carolina. Beside her weepy, dissembling husband, she looks like a tower of strength and integrity.
Does Jenny Sanford have a political future of her own? In this state, with the lowest percentage of female office holders in the nation, there is certainly room for her. And there is always room for another smart Democrat.
See Will Moredock’s blog at charlestoncitypaper.com/blogs/thegoodfight.