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Huffington puts fear in its place

The Baltimore Sun

In more than 30 years as a writer, social commentator and political gadfly, Arianna Huffington has set her steely, hazel-eyed gaze on everyone from Pablo Picasso to Dick Cheney. Few have emerged unscathed.

"Chutzpah doesn't even begin to describe the vice president of the United States suggesting that the outcome of the Connecticut primary might embolden 'al Qaeda types,'" she wrote recently on her Web site,, about Sen. Joseph Lieberman's loss to an anti-war challenger.

While some detractors see Huffington as a one-person publicity machine -- from her campaign against gas-guzzling sports utility vehicles to her blip-on-the-radar run for the California governorship -- there is no one who questions her determination.

It has carried her from the streets of Athens, Greece, where she grew up, to the somber halls of Cambridge University and the heady heights of New York, Washington and Los Angeles society. She married and divorced a U.S. congressman and made a highly publicized ideological conversion from right to left. In April, Time magazine named her one of the world's 100 most influential people.

Now, a little more than a year since founding her Web site -- now booming, it has 750 contributing bloggers, is getting about 30 million page views a month and recently received $5 million in investment funding -- Huffington has turned her focus to far more personal concerns in her 11th book, On Becoming Fearless (Little, Brown), in stores today.

In it, Huffington, the 56-year-old mother of two teenage girls, reveals that far from the relentless force of nature she is sometimes depicted as being, she had to overcome many instances of fear, uncertainty and doubt in her quest for serenity, and even now the demons linger.

Just the other day, she admitted in an interview from her Los Angeles home, she became anxious about her 15-year-old daughter, who was on the bustling Santa Monica pier. She couldn't reach her by cell phone.

"I really had to watch myself," Huffington said, her accent laced with inflections from her roots in Greece and England. "I literally have to practice everything I preach about observing your fears, which is the first step in taking dominion over them."

In the introduction to her book, Huffington writes: "As I watch my girls in their teenage years, I'm stunned to see all the same classic fears I was burdened with: How attractive am I? Do people like me? Should I speak up? ... I had thought that with all the gains feminism has brought, my daughters would not have to suffer through the fears I did. Yet here is our younger generation, as uncertain, doubting and desperate as we were, trying to fulfill the expectations of others. What happened to our bold little girls?"

It's a question she tries to answer in the 230-page book, which includes essays from prominent women such as Diane Keaton and Nora Ephron. Above all, Huffington said, her model for fearlessness was her own mother, who walked out on a faithless husband when it was rare for a woman in Greece to do so, stared down Nazi soldiers' guns during World War II and had no compunctions about insisting, years later in London, that her plumber sit down with Prime Minister Edward Heath to discuss politics over dinner.

"I was scared to death that I could never live up to that," Huffington said of her mother, who died in 2000. "She had these amazing values of not believing in any hierarchies."

In her book, Huffington describes instances in which she was almost stopped cold by fear, among them her daughter Isabella's fever-induced seizure as a baby; publishers' repeated rejections of her second book; and, after her mother's death, the fear of living her life "without the person who had been its foundation."

"I realized that as I was experiencing my fears, that whenever I didn't let them stop me, good things happened," she recalled. "And the first good thing that happened was that I survived. Fearlessness is not the absence of fear but the mastery of it."

After writing biographies of Picasso and the diva Maria Callas, a book about Greek gods, and political satires such as Greetings from the Lincoln Bedroom, Huffington said, she decided to put her growing awareness of the power of fearlessness into a book dedicated to her daughters.

The cultural images they and other women are absorbing "dominate how they respond to their bodies," Huffington said. "You can never look good enough."

She had to laugh, she said, when she saw the story about, as she put it, "shrinking Katie Couric," when someone decided to trim the figure of CBS' new evening news anchor in a publicity photograph.

"How truly insane our country is becoming," Huffington said, "to take a perfectly beautiful woman and feel they have to shrink her. Whoever did it reflects that cultural ideal, and women have internalized it. It leads to a tremendous amount of fear."

Inevitably, a droll take on the Couric story appeared on HuffingtonPost, a clear indication, Huffington said, that the site does not take itself too seriously.

"I love the fact that while the mainstream media is suffering from attention deficit disorder, the blogosphere is obsessive-compulsive," she said. "I love the fact that I can write about the war in Iraq endlessly without someone telling me, 'You wrote about that two days ago.'"

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