In the private room of Tosca, an upscale Italian restaurant in a renovated tobacco warehouse in downtown Durham, Arianna Huffington is introducing people she doesn’t even know. “York, have you met Jesse?” she asks, introducing the Indy’s photographer to the president of the Duke Student Union, the group that brought her to speak on campus earlier that evening. Now, after a long day of traveling, a book signing and multiple media interviews, Huffington looks perfectly at home sitting down to a late dinner, engaging everyone in conversation, breaking into a tense discussion with a pointed joke about President Bush. This Republican-turned-radical crusader against political corruption seems most in her element when she’s at a party.

While Arianna is famous in Washington–one of those celebrities with whom the public is on a first-name basis–the general public knows little about her, and knows even less what to make of her. Huffington and two of her friends created the recent anti-SUV television ad campaign, which parodied the drug war ads that link buying pot to supporting terrorism. She was a regular guest on Bill Maher’s talk show Politically Incorrect until it was canceled by the ABC network following a politically incorrect comment from Maher. Her syndicated column runs in newspapers across the country each week.

But many people remember Huffington from her Republican days, when her then-husband Michael spent an unprecedented amount of his own money on a failed Senate run. She went on to work for Newt Gingrich during those heady “Contract with America” days. Then she changed. She became an activist who fights for campaign finance reform and against the war on drugs. For years, liberals and conservatives alike were suspicious of her motives and kept waiting for her to change stripes again.

Even her conversion isn’t widely understood. Rob Christensen wrote in The News & Observer that she’s “become Hillary Clinton with a Greek accent and more chic clothes.” Hardly. Well, the accent is charming and the clothes are chic. But Sen. Clinton and her husband are regular targets of Huffington’s column. One of her previous books, “Greetings from the Lincoln Bedroom,” was a send-up of the cash for privilege Clinton White House.

To read her column or hear quotes from the speech, you might expect Huffington to be a militant, stamping her foot and raising her voice. But she’s not. And she hasn’t lost touch with her Republican roots. She backed Republican Sen. John McCain in the 2000 presidential race. She’s tapping the outrage not just of perpetually outraged liberals but of those many shareholders whose retirement accounts were wiped out when the blue chip companies collapsed.

Huffington was in Durham as part of a nationwide college tour to promote her new book Pigs At the Trough, which blasts corporate CEOs, naming names and dollar amounts in the Enron, WorldCom, Tyco and Adelphia scandals. Her Feb. 27 speech at Duke drew only a small crowd, but she’ll be swinging back through the Triangle on March 24 for a speech at UNC.

“We’re really living in two Americas,” she told the crowd at Duke, quoting her book. “There’s ‘upstairs America’ and ‘downstairs America.’ In 1980, the average CEO was making 42 times as much as the average worker. Now that’s gone up to 571 times as much.”

A Los Angeleno who’s friends with celebrities like Seinfeld producer Larry David and Ben Stiller, she shuttles back and forth to Washington. It seems inconceivable that a woman so well suited to hosting parties at a Hollywood mansion would stand at a podium to talk to college students about the plight of the American worker.

“The market is rigged,” she repeated often during her speech, insisting libertarians and Free Marketeers should be as outraged as anyone by the corrupt economic system that shelters corporate tycoons from public accountability. “The nexus of corruption between corporate America and Washington–that is really the crux of the problem. We’re not just dealing with a few bad apples … Ayn Rand would be appalled by CEOs today.”

In fact, Huffington refuses to adhere to any political party, and for every Republican she rakes over the coals (former Haliburton CEO Dick Cheney is a favorite), she throws a Democrat on the barbecue as well (like Tom Daschle, who’s married to a highly paid airline lobbyist).

“I don’t think that politicians from either party are going to rise to the occasion,” she told the crowd at Duke. She insists that leadership is missing, and only leadership can bring about corporate accountability. “Luckily, because our politicians are so spineless they scare easily, so it doesn’t take much to jolt them into reality.”

This refusal to toe any party’s line is part of what makes her such an effective commentator and gives her the mobility it takes to stay in the public eye. Instead of focusing on third party candidates like Ralph Nader, Huffington says we should focus on changing the climate in which political candidates run. By staying angry, we can inject real issues into the debate.

“Feed your outrage,” Huffington told the students over dinner, urging them not to forget the billions of dollars stolen from stockholders in the corporate scandals. “Every day I wake up and find 12 stories in the paper that outrage me,” she said earlier in the speech. “I’ve almost given up Starbucks–I get my adrenaline rush by reading the Wall Street Journal every day.”

She spoke of satire as a powerful weapon, a good trick for staying on the public radar. “It really is a good populist tool to cut through the media clutter.” Her famous ad campaign against SUVs, for instance, is a parody of the drug war ads equating smoking a joint with terrorism. In the ads, it was SUV owners’ purchase of gas from foreign oil that funded foreign terrorism–an arguably more direct connection. “I helped our enemies develop weapons of mass destruction,” says one of the talking heads. “What if I need to go offroad?” says another.

To those literal-minded folks who were angered by the ads’ assertion that their cars support terrorism, Huffington replied, “Has anyone heard of Jonathan Swift?” Her actual position on SUVs is that people should be able to drive what they want to drive, but that Detroit should build hybrid gas/electric SUVs–and drivers should demand them. The ad campaign was widely criticized but still successful. Sen. Diane Feinstein introduced legislation this year that would require higher fuel efficiency for light trucks and SUVs, and Sen. Barbara Boxer has fought to end tax credits for SUV buyers.

The Modest Proposal is one of Huffington’s specialties. Besides the Detroit Project, she and comedian Harry Shearer created a project called the Partnership for a Poll Free America. Polls are the cause of Washington’s atrophied leadership, Huffington says. And considering that only 35 percent of people bothered at dinnertime are willing to respond to a poll, they’re not a good tool for measuring public opinion. In another satirical nod to the war on drugs, the project’s name and entreaty are meant to be funny, but the message is quick, serious and simple: When a pollster calls, hang up.

During our introductions at the restaurant, Student Union President Jesse Panuccio, a self-described conservative, told her proudly that he owns a Nissan Pathfinder and isn’t about to trade it in. She listened with a smile and a laugh, and makes sure to include him in the conversation

It’s not a war, she seems to say, but a grand old party. Hers is a kind of cocktail party populism, where everyone is invited to enjoy themselves.

“The fact that almost two-thirds of eligible voters did not vote in the last election is incredibly significant,” she said of the need to involve people of all ideological stripes. “The level of disillusionment is incredibly profound. And what I’m trying to say is, you can be disillusioned with the political system and still be politically involved.”

The Duke students said most people on campus feel politically unmotivated, but added that most students are very committed to community service. Huffington replied, perhaps generously, that she was hearing “the same idealism that young people have always had, but they don’t want to funnel it into political activism, because they feel that the system is too corrupt and they’re never going to get anywhere. And so they’re funneling it into community service.

“What I’m saying is that we can funnel it into movement building,” she added. “I spent years championing nothing but community service. That was in my Republican years.” After working with groups that ministered to people in jail and mentored their kids, Huffington realized there were systematic problems going unaddressed. “I thought to myself, a lot of these people should not be in jail. They’re there for nonviolent drug offenses, as 500,000 people are. They should be in treatment. So yes, we can be working to send these children Christmas presents or mentor them, but if we don’t change the systemic problems we’re never going to be able to affect enough change.”

Huffington will be back on Monday, March 24, to speak in Carroll Hall, Room 111, at UNC-Chapel Hill. The event is free and open to the public.

“When I come back, I’ll have a whole different speech in favor of corporate corruption,” she joked as she said goodnight to the students in Durham. “We don’t want people to become bored.” EndBlock