At the Kennedy School of Government’s ARCO Forum Monday night (Jan. 27), syndicated columnist and political turncoat Arianna Huffington gave an opening nod to her former “Comedy Central” and “Politically Incorrect” sparring partner, Shorenstein Fellow Al Franken ’75. During the 1996 presidential campaign, she was the conservative voice of their point-counterpoint segment “Strange Bedfellows,” and, she said, “sex [with Franken] was so good that I become a liberal.”
While Franken smiled from the front row, Huffington shared harsher words for more insidious bedfellows: corporate America – particularly Detroit’s SUV-happy automakers – and political America. Drawing from her newest book, “Pigs at the Trough: How Corporate Greed and Political Corruption are Undermining America” (Crown, 2003), Huffington told the supportive audience “How Political Corruption Fueled the SUV [sport utility vehicle] Explosion.”
“The explosion of SUVs is a case study of the collusion between corporate America and Washington,” said Huffington, citing the government’s lower fuel economy standards for SUVs and a new federal tax benefit that rewards those who buy exceptionally large SUVs that weigh more than 6,000 pounds.
Huffington, who drove an SUV herself before switching to Toyota’s gas-electric hybrid Prius within the past year, showed TV advertisements produced by The Detroit Project, an organization she co-founded to raise America’s awareness of the link between SUVs and our politically fragile reliance on foreign oil.
One ad featured a succession of confessional talking heads describing the impact of their SUVs. “I helped hijack an airplane,” says one. “I helped blow up a nightclub.” “So what if it gets 11 miles to the gallon?” “It makes me feel safe.” “What if I need to go off-road?”
In another ad, comedian Ben Stiller ambushes a woman as she’s pulling her SUV out of her driveway. “Go off-road much?” he asks, then launches a friendly assault on her choice to drive a gas-guzzler. Stiller takes a punch at the end, but The Detroit Project’s tag line gets the last word: “Oil money supports some terrible things. What kind of mileage does your SUV get?”
Huffington, who has written nine books, also dug into corporate scandals, the cozy – and sometimes familial – relations between lobbyists and lawmakers, and media complicity.
“It’s this nexus between corporate America and Washington that we need to expose if there’s going to be any real fundamental change,” she said.
Calling President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney “poster boys for political scandal and corruption,” Huffington trained her biting wit on the Bush administration’s policies. While millions of Americans founder without jobs or health insurance, she said, the president is concerned with cutting taxes on dividends.
“It’s like public policy made in an insane asylum,” said Huffington.
She exhorted the audience to get involved, reminding them that major political and social movements like the civil rights or women’s movements began at the grassroots level. Her own Detroit Project, she said, started when she wrote a column proposing ads that linked driving SUVs with national security the way “war on drugs” ads connected drug use with terrorism. The day after her column ran, she was flooded with more than 5,000 e-mails from people willing to support such a campaign.
While some television stations have refused to run the ads, they created such a media buzz that they got free airtime via news programs that ran them. “We started a major national conversation,” she said, crediting populist passion, not a large, well-oiled political machine, for the success.
“We need to stop looking to Washington for the knight on the white horse to save us, because he ain’t there,” she said, encouraging individual activism. “The good news about having spineless leaders is that they scare easily.”
Moderator Alex Jones, lecturer in public policy and director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, opened the microphones to the audience, several of whom introduced themselves as “just an ordinary citizen” or “a lowly student.”
“What’s this outburst of humility at Harvard?” quipped Huffington.
She continued to urge individual activism on issues from avoiding the skewed agenda setting of political pollsters (she is also co-founder of Partnership for a Poll-Free America) to demanding better media coverage of important issues.
Picking on the media for its nonstop, sensational coverage of Gary Condit, Elián Gonzalez, or the current disappearance of a Modesto, Calif., woman, Huffington told one audience member to vote with her remote by clicking away from such coverage, “even if the only channel you can switch to is the Golf Channel.”
Writing or e-mailing representatives, demonstrating, and taking advantage of the Internet as a “marvelous populist tool” are other ways the lowly students and ordinary citizens in the audience can make a difference, she said.
“I cannot overestimate the importance of grassroots action,” she said.
Learn more about Huffington’s grassroots activism against SUVs at http://www.thedetroitproject.com