- - Wednesday, May 7, 2014


By Arianna Huffington
Harmony Books, $26, 342 pages

For most of us, Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington is little more than an occasional media annoyance, a raspy-voiced scold with a toothy grin reminiscent of Mack the Knife, and — first and foremost — a gifted, persistent pitchwoman. The product she pitches is always the same: herself. However, like many a venerable brand before her (Coca Cola and Barbie Dolls spring to mind), Mrs. Huffington has mastered the art of morphing with the times, a true trend surfer.

I first heard about her during frequent visits to London in the 1970s. Friends in politics and journalism described her as a bright, insatiably ambitious Cambridge graduate with a caricature of a Greek “tiger mother,” an opportunistic bent for Tory politics and a goofy side given to rambling about astral projection. To her credit, between attempts at out-of-body experiences and a busy schedule of social climbing, Arianna managed to write a substantial book on Pablo Picasso, probably the best of the 14 volumes she has ground out over the years.

Having squeezed London dry, Arianna turned her attention to America. Before you knew it, she had bagged a California oil millionaire husband, Michael Huffington, and cashed in her Thatcherite chips by joining the Reagan Revolution just as it was cresting. However, things are seldom what they seem. Arianna’s hubby abandoned his safe Republican House seat for an unsuccessful Senate run. Once out of office, he announced that he was gay and would henceforth pursue a career in the arts. End of marriage and end of conservative connection.

Now a very wealthy woman, Mrs. Huffington re-invented herself as a New Age liberal Democrat and made a laughably failed run for governor in California. Then she re-invented herself all over again, this time as a media tycoon. Her Huffington Post is a large-scale news and commentary site with a liberal political outlook but a hard-nosed capitalist approach to business operations. You could call it the Tom Sawyer Business Model. The Huffington Post, while it has added millions to Mrs. Huffington’s already substantial wealth, pays nothing for most of the articles it carries. Contributors, like Tom Sawyer’s unpaid fence painters, are told that they should be grateful for the honor of participating.

All of which makes the title of Mrs. Huffington’s new book, “Thrive,” quite appropriate. Thrive she certainly has. By cozying up to the right people on her way up, by shrewd shape-shifting whenever her career seemed to hit a dead end, and by a bottomless gift for self-promotion, Mrs. Huffington has achieved unique status as a Greco-Anglo-American variation on the theme of Oprah Winfrey — media mogul, pop pundit and, now, yet another life-style guru peddling what she calls the “Third Metric” of success. If we take Mrs. Huffington’s example at face value, the “Third Metric” means, after having piled on the wealth and power, deciding to dine better, get more sleep, spend more quality time with friends, family and loved ones and occasionally pausing to reflect rather than mindlessly dashing down life’s highway.

There is nothing new about any of this. It is the way well-balanced adults have always tried to lead their lives. Now that “stress” has become the ailment of the hour — and perhaps because Mrs. Huffington moves in the very atypical world of status and money obsessed celebrityhood — she and her support team of editors and researchers have mustered legions of factoids and social myths — a mile wide and an inch deep — to heighten the power of their pitch. For example, “Germany lost 59 million workdays to psychological illness in 2011, up over 80 percent in 15 years,” no doubt due in large part to ever more diagnoses and expanding definitions of mental illness, or, “[i]n the U.S. alone, “stress costs American business an estimated $300 billion a year, and sleep deprivation another $63 billion,” as if stress could be measured like calories or even precisely defined in a statistically valid way.

A better title for this book— if it weren’t already taken — would have been “After the Fall” since Mrs. Huffington informs us that her great awakening to the “Third Metric” was engendered by a kitchen accident in which she fell on her head, collapsing due to sleep deprivation. She tells us that she has since set up “nap rooms” in Huffington Post headquarters, so that staff members need never be sleep-deprived again. Mrs. Huffington could have achieved the same goal by simply lending them all copies of her latest book. It may not be much as literature, but it’s a first-class cure for insomnia.

Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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