Dessert -- a hockey-puck-size cappuccino torte in Grand Marnier sauce -- had just been served. As Newt Gingrich and 18 others at last week's $50,000-a-couple dinner for National Empowerment Television started in on the sweet, their hostess, Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington, raised her glass to propose holding another supper for the right-wing TV channel and other conservative causes -- at 10 times the price. "It started out as kind of a joke -- a $500,000-a-couple fund-raiser," one guest, Bradley Keena, recounted. "But Arianna was serious."
Clearly, Arianna Huffington, who specializes in such grand gestures, is luxuriating in Gingrich's Washington. The 44-year-old Greek-born socialite and author desperately wants to be the new capital queen bee. A jet-setter who used to date Democrat Jerry Brown, she's now the life of the Grand Old Party, raising money and preaching the virtues of voluntarism.
Outside Newt's New Age wing, however, it's not at all clear that many Republicans really want Arianna as their Pamela Harriman. GOP strategists believe that her husband, oil heir and one-term congressman Michael Huffington, might well have beaten Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein last year if Arianna hadn't played such a public -- and controversial -- role in the race, which cost the Huffingtons $28 million of their own money. Ed Rollins, the consultant who worked on the campaign, has been privately bad-mouthing the couple, blaming them for the loss in a year when Republicans everywhere were winning. And cultural conservatives are skeptical of Arianna's past involvement with the guru (and alleged cult leader) John-Roger. "She's not part of what I do," William Bennett told Newsweek. "It's a salon thing with her." Another prominent GOP consultant adds: "She's really a classic social climber."
With Gingrich's blessing, her own charm and her husband's money, Arianna can afford to brush off those who find her suddenly high-profile interest in antigovernment activism a tad convenient. "Our expectations of government and politics are dangerously inflated," she says. Her solution? Arianna will soon open the Center for Effective Compassion, an offshoot of the speaker's Progress and Freedom Foundation. The center, which will attack the "welfare state," is based on the premise that because public programs have not solved poverty and other social ills, the country needs to replace government with charity. Government is bad; the private sector, fueled by spiritual renewal, is good. Soon she will take on another favorite target -- the media -- with a TV show called "Beat the Press." She promises "investigative packages on who the reporters are and what are their motivations."
In 1993, after the Huffingtons decided that Michael would run for the Senate, he briefly reconsidered. "Michael said, "Maybe I should put all the money we plan to spend into a foundation to explore how to replace the welfare state'," says Arianna. "But we thought that would be a one-day story." They ran then -- and she's campaigning still -- for position and power as much as anything else.