This week, New York becomes the latest glossy magazine to profile Arianna Huffington, and like many journalists who've tackled the task before her, the magazine's Vanessa Grigoriadis paints a complex if underhanded portrait. Grigoriadis stops just short of comparing her subject to Janus, the two-faced Greek god of transitions who looks simultaneously at the future and the past. In the expansive and deeply personal profile, we learn a lot about The Huffington Post co-founder, including but not limited to her breakout success as a contrarian writer in her early 20s to her recent success at practically usurping control of AOL. It's an impressive distillation of an impressive career that even manages to tease out Arianna's potential plans to vote against Obama in 2012.
Inevitably, everyone will notice Huffington's quote about the president. Politico's Mike Allen gives Huffington's comments about Obama the top story in his Playbook email. Huffington's trepidation about a second Obama term is especially noteworthy in light of The Huffington Post's coverage of Obama's 2008 campaign, which some criticized as being positive to the point of conspiracy. Quoth Grigoriadis:
Huffington says now that she is disappointed in Obama and could even see herself voting Republican in the next presidential election. "To me," she says, "the issues are more important than the party." She pauses. "Trust me, I realize how hard it is to change the system, but Obama has demonstrated only the fierce urgency of sometime later, and at the same time the middle class is under assault”—she smiles—"which is of course the topic of my last book."
That last sentence — including the aside — is fairly indicative of the second face Grigoriadis puts on Arianna Huffington. Of the last glossy Huffington profile in Vogue, Gawker's Ryan Tate noticed, "There's some gushing about her warmth and glamour, descriptions of a couple of her outfits. But if you read closely, there's claw, too." The same could also be said about New York's take, though Grigoriadis's comparisons scratch deeper. The unflattering metaphors start with the article's second sentence describing, as it were, Huffington's appearance, comparing her hair to Donald Trump's. The story's dissing really hits its stride just after the opening scene:
For Huffington, who, on the one hand, serves as a glittery Earth Mother and, on the other, is the world's best bullshit artist, with stagehands and pulleys at work in conversation (although, oddly, she remains intensely enjoyable to be around), AOL is in some respects a "magical land."
With the title "Maharishi Arianna," the piece continues for nearly 7,000 more words, the vast majority of them flattering — "a cultural magician," for example — but others are cutting. Grigoriadis highlights the words of a critic who once called Huffington "an intellectual kleptomaniac" and sums up her subject's complexity by calling her "a protean self-reinventionist." Grigoriadis even quotes one anonymous former employee who calls Huffington, a "stepmother that you just want to love but can't because you know she’s pure evil."
Grigoriadis, the winner of the 2007 National Magazine award for Profile Writing, knows what she's doing. "Some of my articles can be controversial," she says on her personal website, "but I pride myself on dealing with my subjects and sources honestly at all times." As far as the interpretation of the underhanded digs into Huffington's character, judgement is ultimately up to the reader, who Grigoriadis leaves with a leading question:
Then again, she's done it before. "Everything I want to do, everything I care about, everything I may care about tomorrow but I don't know that I care about today, I can do at AOL," she tells me. "This is my last incarnation."
But who would believe her?
Disclosure: I worked as an editor at The Huffington Post from early 2009 to the end of 2010.