‘From Struggle to Grace’: Arianna Huffington Levels With Lesley Stahl

Arianna Huffington

The co-founder and editor-in-chief of Huffington Post joins Lesley Stahl to talk about Elizabeth Edwards, Obama and the economy, her last incarnation and more.

LESLEY STAHL: Arianna Huffington, thank you. Welcome to wowOwow. You’re the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post; you’ve written 12 books; you’re a political commentator. One does not know even where to start to ask you questions. But let’s try this. Every time I point my clicker at the television set and surf around, I see Barack Obama. He’s making announcements, he’s giving interviews, he’s there all the time. There’s a debate about why he’s in our faces so much and whether he’s overexposed. What do you think about that? What do you think about the president and is he overdoing it?

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: I don’t think so, Lesley. I believe that Obama’s strength from the first time he burst onto the national scene with a speech at the convention in 2004, to the last speech he gave this morning …

LESLEY: Yes. Exactly, my point.

ARIANNA: That is one of his great gifts, the ability to communicate, the ability to be not just the commander in chief and the chief executive, but the teacher in chief. He’s a teacher. He’s a natural-born teacher and his speech that kind of most epitomizes that is his speech at Georgetown about the economy, where he literally walked us through what was happening.

LESLEY: If he would do that, and let us absorb it, that’s one thing. But then every day there’s another subject. Today he announced the cyber czar and yesterday it was the cars.  I begin to think maybe it’s a little too much.

ARIANNA: It’s working so far. I think it will stop working if the economy, the real economy as opposed to the stock-market economy, does not improve. If we don’t see any real shift in unemployment numbers, foreclosure numbers, credit-card default numbers, then I think people may begin to feel that they want results, and … and simply talking, which I think is incredibly important. I don’t think we should ever underestimate the power of leadership through rhetoric, through explaining, through spreading confidence – which has been working because, if you look at the numbers of consumer confidence, for example, they’re entirely based on imponderables. The numbers about how you feel about current conditions are not good at all because current conditions are based on data. But the numbers about the future are dramatically better because they’re not based on data. They’re based on hope.

LESLEY: One would have the impression, based on his popularity, that politically he is bringing the country over a little bit to the left, that he’s created a sea change – basically turning the country more bluish. But I saw a recent Pew Poll that said actually we haven’t changed all that much; in terms of liberal versus conservative we’re still pretty much a 50/50 country. What do you make of that? It’s interesting.

ARIANNA: Actually, you know, Lesley, I feel that this left/right way of looking at the world is very obsolete; that if you look at the major problems that we are facing – and let’s take health care, there is … you don’t have to be a progressive or a liberal or on the left to be in favor of some form of universal health coverage. I was just on CNN now and we discussed a poll they just brought out that shows large majorities in favor of government providing health care. Clearly it’s not just liberals or those on the left who want that.

ARIANNA: I mean you have a Business Week story that talks about CEOs wanting that, because increasingly corporate America has been carrying a lot of the burden of having to deliver health care to their employees. And we see that on the economy it’s hard to know whether what Obama is doing should be defined as left or right, because he’s basically bailing out Wall Street, and to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars, which many conservative economists and many liberal economists – you have Paul Krugman and Niall Ferguson of Harvard – thinking this is not the right way to go.

LESLEY: Let me throw out a couple of names at you and have you give us your read on what you think these people are up to and whether you think they’re succeeding. OK? So let’s start with someone I find five steps beyond intriguing – former Vice President Dick Cheney. Now speak of a transformation, he suddenly went from Mr. Illusive to Mr. Everywhere.

ARIANNA: Well he is, I think on every level, failing because I think he’s making policies that the president repudiated, and the nation repudiated by electing Obama, even more … even less appealing because he’s out there defending torture without any data, without any evidence. He keeps saying that these policies worked, even while CIA analysts, people who’ve actually delved into the data and the effectiveness of torture are denying what the former vice president is saying, and he’s doing it in a way that is so bitter and so lacking in grace of following the sort of protocols of how you act when you’ve just left office. I mean, he’s really trying to almost get like a third term.

LESLEY: And you think it’s not succeeding?

ARIANNA: I think the people who are buying what he’s saying are the same kind of 20 percent that’s going to approve of the administration right to the bitter end.

LESLEY: OK, let me ask you about someone else. Sonia Sotomayor. What’s your take in general about her? And what does your gut tell you about her stand on abortion?

ARIANNA: Well, first of all, I really feel that she is immensely qualified for the job, and I find the attacks on her as being a racist, as Gingrich called her, or Rush Limbaugh’s endless attacks on her, of being really off the mark and unfortunate for the sake of the Republican Party, because, after all, the Hispanic demographic is so incredibly significant. C-Span explained, as you know, a very decisive role in the last election – 67 percent going for Obama, 31 percent for McCain. So to now see Conservatives attacking her because of her ethnicity, in many instances, is very self-destructive for a party that wants to play a majority role again.

LESLEY: So politically, for Obama this was a brilliant choice is what you’re saying?

ARIANNA: Well, I’m saying that on her merits she is an unassailable choice. And you … I mean, everybody knows she’s going to be confirmed.

LESLEY: Right. So why attack her, right?

ARIANNA: So the way she’s being attacked now is basically undermining Conservatives. And that’s why you have Republican senators and members of Congress disassociating themselves from those attacks. And I just feel it does not make any sense at all. As for her views on abortion, I think we will know more when she comes up for confirmation.

LESLEY: Do you think that the liberals should mount a campaign against her if it isn’t clear that she’s pro-choice?

ARIANNA: No. I don’t think so. There’s no evidence that she would have any intention to overthrow Roe vs. Wade. I think there’s a little paranoia here.

LESLEY: Let me ask you about one more person, Elizabeth Edwards. My friends are still sitting around talking about why she wrote this book. Now some think it’s just purely revenge against her husband. But I heard someone the other day – and I found this very curious – say, “Look, if you have cancer you don’t need to explain your motives.”

ARIANNA: Well I understand that if you … we all know we’re going to die and in her case, though, you know she has advanced cancer. And as she said on one of the interviews, it came back on her side. So she’s constantly facing her own mortality. So if she wanted to write a book where she put forward how she saw what happened, what the impact was on her and on her family, and if she felt that was something that she wanted to have on the record, I feel that it’s really her choice.

LESLEY: Who are we to question someone in her position?

ARIANNA: Exactly. Yes.

LESLEY: Right. Let’s talk about you. What a great idea.

ARIANNA: I was just so happy we were not talking about me. I was thinking, “I like this interview.”

LESLEY: Well, let’s talk about you briefly, and then we’re going to talk about the Huffington Post. How’s that?

ARIANNA: OK.

LESLEY: You like talking about that. But I read something that’s somewhat amusing, by Michael Kinsley, who once said of you, “She’s had at least nine lives. Someone’s going to turn it into an opera. Probably her,” which is pretty cute. But you have had many lives and —

ARIANNA: And I’ve known you through many of them.

LESLEY: Yes. But … well, I didn’t know you when you were the head of the Debating Society at Cambridge.

ARIANNA: No.

LESLEY: No. I don’t even think I really did know you when you were a Conservative commentator. And now you’re a Liberal commentator. You’ve been a self-help writer, you ran for governor of California. Now you’re a media mogul and a digital pioneer. That’s a lot of lives. And I wonder what you think the thread is that ties your career together. Do you see it as a straight line yourself?

ARIANNA: Um, the thread, if you look at my books, too – you know I’ve done 12 books now – is that I’ve delved into what I’m passionate about. That’s why, in a sense, if you look at my books they range from biographies to, as you said, a self-help book on fearlessness, the political books. So I think it’s really throwing myself into whatever I really want to explore. And in the course of exploring it and delivering something, I also learn. When we launched the Huffington Post four years ago, I just knew that what was happening online was incredibly important and that I wanted – as you also decided to do when you launched wOw – that something very important was happening online and yet a lot of interesting voices were still not online because of habits. And so that is really the original motivation, but I learned so much in the course of launching the Huffington Post and the evolution of the Post. And the same way with a book. You know, I start with an idea and then by the end of it I, myself, have been exposed to a whole new subject.

LESLEY: Well, as you’ve gone through your life and done all these many things – and I know you well enough to know that each one has been done with your total passion, and clearly that’s why you’ve been so successful, because you do throw yourself in. But I wonder how you would say you’ve changed, and I don’t mean politically. It’s obvious you’ve changed politically. But I mean as a person, as a woman.

ARIANNA: I find that my fundamental change has been to be a lot less reactive, a lot more centered. The way I say to myself is to move from struggle to grace. You know, there’s a lot of effort that goes into any kind of project, right? It’s not … it doesn’t just magically happen, whether it’s a book or a site or an article or a blog or anything, right?

LESLEY: I know exactly what you’re talking about.

ARIANNA: You know what I’m saying? There’s a lot of work.

LESLEY: It’s a wonderful way to say it. Where you can do whatever you’re doing gracefully.

ARIANNA: Gracefully and without anxiety.

LESLEY: Yes.

ARIANNA: It doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot of work involved, but right now I feel that I’m going to be 59 on July 15 and I think a lot of it has to do with being older, and having done a lot of things through struggle and working. And now I’m really relishing the fact that … I’m loving what I’m doing so much more because that sense of struggling is not there.

LESLEY: You’re saying it’s so much bigger. I know —

ARIANNA: Everything. Everything. Yes.

LESLEY: — what you’re saying.

ARIANNA: And it’s really … you know how those of us who’ve worked all our lives and also brought up families and have been used to this juggling act have softened. I know certainly in my life, and in my case, I have tried to be very effective, very organized.

LESLEY: Yes. Holding everything together. You have to.

ARIANNA: Yes. Making sure every minute counts. Be productive, right?

LESLEY: Yes.

ARIANNA: So I feel now that the most important thing in my life is not anymore to be effective. I kind of know I can be effective. You know, if you have a deadline you’re going to meet it, OK? You reach the point where you’re not worried about meeting your deadlines. So my goal now is to be really enjoying what I’m doing.

LESLEY: And have you? Are you?

ARIANNA: I really am. That required a lot of changes in my life. For example, sleep has become incredibly important. I’m done with sleep deprivation.

LESLEY: I like that. We all need our sleep.

ARIANNA: You know, I find if I don’t have my seven to eight hours sleep a night I’m not as joyful during the day, I’m not relishing everything I’m doing in the same way.

LESLEY: I can’t believe you, Arianna, find seven hours a day to sleep.

ARIANNA: I do. And when I don’t, you know, for whatever reason, I make sure I catch up as quickly as I can, or I catnap, or I meditate during the day. I try to do something. Do I succeed every day? Absolutely not. You are absolutely right. But the difference between me now, when this is a priority, and me in the past, when I thought I could stand the candle at both ends and I would drag myself through the day like a zombie and keep doing things, no matter how I felt, that’s what has changed.

LESLEY: That’s good. Let me ask you about a change. I don’t know that you’ve changed on this. I wanted to find out. When you were young, in your 20s, you wrote a book called The Female Woman, and it was seen as an attack on the feminist movement. Do you still feel that you’re not, and never have been, a feminist?

ARIANNA: You know, it was never an attack on the feminist movement. It was really very much what Betty Friedan wrote in The Second Stage. I don’t know if you remember what it was like in the early ’70s, when there was a sort of contempt for the women who chose to be mothers, or the women who did not make their careers the highest priority. And all that I was saying in that book, which I wrote when I was 23, was we need to give equal respect – I mean that’s straight out of the book – to women who chose to pursue … to sort of do their lives, either by focusing on their careers, by focusing on their families or by trying to do both. And society needs to support all these choices. That is really the message of the book. And certainly in my own life I worked all my life. I never, for one moment, imagine my life without a career. So that was just, I think, a misrepresentation of the book based on how heated those times were.

LESLEY: Right. Well I guess the feminist movement kind of caught up with you, in a way.

ARIANNA: Well definitely the feminist movement changed a lot, because —

LESLEY: Yes.

ARIANNA: — all that anger toward men and toward family and children, remember … disappeared. Women discovered that that’s not what they wanted exclusively.

LESLEY: You’ve written another book, On Becoming Fearless, and I love the subject as well. The way I see you, you’re the epitome of fearlessness. You do not seem to be afraid to put yourself out there, take the hits, bounce back. I cannot imagine that you have ever been afraid of anything.

ARIANNA: No, I don’t think that’s the case. And what I’m saying in the book is it’s not that we’re not afraid or that I haven’t been afraid – it’s not letting our fears stop us. I think that’s the difference. I think fear is just another human emotion we all go through. The difference is, do we let our fear stop us, or do we keep going despite our fears? And in a sense, I wrote that book for my teenage daughters. And that is the message I wanted to give them. And in the course of writing it, I reinforced it for myself because, you know, when the Huffington Post was first launched there were a lot of naysayers and other people, including many good friends of mine who said, “Why do you need that? The chance of it succeeding are so few. You have your books. You have your articles. You have your syndicated column. Why bother?” And very often in life we do that, right? We say, “Why rock the boat? Why try something that’s a reach?”

LESLEY: Yes, and that you could fail at.

ARIANNA: Absolutely.

LESLEY: People are afraid of failing, they’re afraid of not having respect, they’re afraid of being rejected, and you’re saying – throw yourself in there. I think that’s —

ARIANNA: I think especially women. I think we women have a much deeper fear of failing than men have.

LESLEY: You know what I think the single bravest thing a woman can do – and tell me what you think – I think the single absolute bravest thing a woman can do is tell a man that she loves him before she knows how he feels.

ARIANNA: Oh, my God. Absolutely.

LESLEY: Now is that terrifying?

ARIANNA: Yes. Thoroughly. And I wonder where we’d be … did you ever do that?

LESLEY: I did. Oooohhh, yeah.

ARIANNA: You did?

LESLEY: Yes. And the answer I got back wasn’t a good one.

ARIANNA: Well, you see how fearless you are.

LESLEY: I wanted to ask you, I want to change the subject – I want to ask you about how you work, because it appears that you put in an enormous number of hours, either working on the Huffington Post, or on television promoting the Huffington Post, being a commentator. What is your typical day like? What do you do? How hands-on are you about the website?

ARIANNA: Completely hands-on. We have great editors and a wonderful managing editor, Jai Singh, and a wonderful editor, Roy Sekoff, so we have a fantastic team.

LESLEY: Do you review the content yourself?

ARIANNA: I’m involved in every aspect of the site. Obviously I don’t pick every story that goes up. That’s no longer possible. But I’m involved with all the big editorial decisions of the site. I’m constantly roaming the site to see what we want to change, what we want to do different. I’m constantly recruiting bloggers, helping launch new verticals. We’re about to launch New York in June. Dan Collins is the editor of that new local. We’re launching new verticals all the time. The next one is technology. We’ve launched our Investigative Fund, which I’m really excited about. I’ve been very involved in staffing that up and we hired last week Larry Roberts, who was the investigative editor of The Washington Post, and we’re really excited about that. So a lot of my time is spent on the expansion of the Huffington Post, you know, as well as spending time on the running of the site as it is now.

LESLEY: But, you know, I was saying every time I look up at the television screen, there’s Obama – but also you. You’re with Keith, you’re with Wolf, you’re with Mika. You just said CNN. How do you have time? You have to run over to their studios, you always look great. How do you fit it all in?

ARIANNA: I find that I work wherever I am. Like when I’m walking, I’m dictating, maybe a blog. While I’m in the car, I’m working. I was joking about that because, like, I get up from my desk and I have my phone plugged in my ear, and I’m talking to somebody about something. It’s a constant process. You know, if I’m in the studio being made up for a show, I’m on the phone dealing with something. So I think part of it is this endless multitasking.

LESLEY: Great management.

ARIANNA: But I also think there is a price to pay in multitasking. I remember my mother, who was the most important person in my life and died in 2000, and lived with me all her life. The last time she was angry with me was when she saw me opening my mail and talking to my daughters at the same time. And she looked at me and in her very heavy accent, which is much, much heavier than mine, she said to me, “I abhor multitasking.”

LESLEY: Well, when you’re talking to your daughters, she was right.

ARIANNA: Absolutely. And in fact, you know, that’s been … you asked me about change, that’s been a big change. Like we have a lot of ground rules now. We all have Blackberries, both the girls and I, and it’s no BlackBerries at dinner, no BlackBerry checking while we are talking.

ARIANNA: A bit of a turning point for me was when I took Christina, my oldest daughter, around to colleges when she was a junior in high school. And our ground rule was no BlackBerries, and I would go into the hotel with her at night, she would go to sleep and I would start working. And I came back here absolutely exhausted. And I remember getting up from my desk the first morning and fainting from exhaustion, hitting my head on my desk, breaking my cheekbone and having five stitches on my eye. And it’s one of those amazing, teachable moments, because I just knew immediately that I had to change the way I was trying to do things. And that is part of what I mentioned earlier, you know, putting more priority on sleep, on making time to work out, meditate, all the things that we now, in the Living section, are calling “unplug and recharge.” You know, how do we unplug and recharge ourselves so that we can keep going through the day and through our work in a way that’s —

LESLEY: — graceful.

ARIANNA: Yes, exactly. In a way that’s much more graceful.

LESLEY: Before I ask you a couple more questions about the Huffington Post, I want to ask one more personal question: What is the dumbest thing you’ve ever done?

ARIANNA: The dumbest thing I’ve ever done? Um, hmm, let me see … picking the dumbest thing I’ve ever done. I think the dumbest thing I’ve ever done has to do … that’s why there are so many examples – it has to do with overcommitting, has to do with not framing my life. I find that, you know, you look at a painting and it needs a frame, it needs poses, it needs gaps in between, it needs interruptions – and that’s what I haven’t been very good at. And that has led to getting to a date or a moment in a day when I’m committed to doing something, and I wish I wasn’t. And that’s what —

LESLEY: We’ve all been there.

ARIANNA: We’ve all been there.

LESLEY: OK, here’s what I thought you were going to say.

ARIANNA: What?

LESLEY: Running for governor against Arnold Schwarzenegger.

ARIANNA: You know what? That was such an amazingly hard experience, but I learned so much.

LESLEY: So it wasn’t wasted?

ARIANNA: No. I learned so much. Part of what I learned about the power of the Internet, which got me to understand why I … I mean, that’s why I tell people that was one of my most visible failures. But at the same time, on the sort of foundation of that failure was built such a deep understanding of how communications were changing, that I don’t know if I would have known how important what was happening online was had it not been for that. I remember we launched a little animated sort of — I don’t know if you can call it cartoon . We called it “The Hybrid Versus the Hummer,” because I was driving a hybrid and Arnold was driving a Hummer, and because his campaign was a juggernaut and mine was a little campaign. And it was just a little animated feature that somehow went crazy viral, it was all over the state, and I literally wake up one morning and there’s this, like, three-quarters of a page in the LA Times about this campaign, which had cost, I think, $10,000. So I just said, “Wow, that’s a new reality.” And there are many, many examples like that, that helped me understand that there was a new digital reality that I, coming from a very different world, had no idea about its power.

LESLEY: So as so often happens, sometimes our worst defeats and lowest moments get turned into lessons that help us with the next chapter. So let me ask you about the new chapter, which is Huffington Post.

ARIANNA: Yes.

LESLEY: Obviously I have a personal interest in the questions I’m going to ask you, because of wowOwow.com, but I’m wondering how you’re viewing what everybody who’s putting content onto the Web is coping with, and that is the drying up of ad money. So what are your thoughts on what the next model is going to be?

ARIANNA: Well, we are finding that … we had our best advertising month last month.

LESLEY: Really?

ARIANNA: Yes, and we are finding that … the opposite. We are finding that advertisers are turning away from print and moving online in a much faster way than they had been moving. I think still lagging behind where eyeballs are, but much less so. And I think part of it is because the rates online are so much cheaper than in print, partly because, you know, the big advertising entities like GM and Chrysler and, of course, all the personals that were taken up by Craigslist are not there. So certainly for the Huffington Post the model is entirely advertising supported.

LESLEY: This is a good model for the future?

ARIANNA: Yes. I feel that … I feel that absolutely it’s a good model. Now we are facing the question of, “Can advertising support investigative journalism?” And I think that not at the moment, of course, so that’s why we … we are now looking at a not-for-profit/for-profit model, when it comes to investigative journalism, which, as you know, is very expensive. So we raise money from the Atlantic Philanthropies and the Schuman Foundation and also we put Huffington Post money into the Investigative Fund. That means that any investigative pieces created by the Fund will be open source, will be available to everybody at the same time. So you could pick up everything and post it, in its entirety, at the same time as the Huffington Post does.

LESLEY: You know this is absolutely essential for our democracy to find a way to pay – to pay the journalists, to pay for journalism —

ARIANNA: Right.

LESLEY: — in a way that makes the smartest kids who graduate from our colleges want to go into this profession.

ARIANNA: Absolutely. But if you look at the billions of dollars that are raised every year for university endowments, why do we think we can’t have billions of dollars raised every year to fund journalists?

LESLEY: Well, we’ve never had the problem before.

ARIANNA: I know. But we do now.

LESLEY: We certainly do. I mean, just … even if it’s not investigative journalism, just daily journalism with all these newspapers is in so much trouble. I’m not talking people who delve behind; I’m talking about the people who ask our elected officials the tough questions. If our society can’t find a good model to pay them, we’re in trouble.

ARIANNA: Well, I think there are many, many models – many distribution models, and many funding models that we are going to be looking at and experimenting with. The model that I really don’t think is going to work is putting content behind walls and pretending that the last 15 years did not happen, the last 15 years in terms of technological advances, in terms of changes in consumer habits.

LESLEY: What do you mean behind? I don’t know what you mean – put content behind walls. You mean making people pay for content on the web? The readers?

ARIANNA: Yes. I don’t see that working.

LESLEY: Let me ask one final question. You’ve been through these many incarnations in your life. Do you think that this is your last incarnation?

ARIANNA:
Yes.

LESLEY: Editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post.

ARIANNA:
I really do. I don’t want another chapter.

LESLEY: OK.

ARIANNA:
I love the current chapter. I love my day job. It’s endlessly evolving, endlessly surprising, and this is it.

LESLEY: You’re delightful and smart, delicious to talk to, and thank you so, so, so much.

ARIANNA:
Thank you, Lesley. It means a lot having you interview me. I would much rather be interviewing you.

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