The Bulletin had the opportunity to interview Arianna Huffington, well-known author and political commentator. Co-founder of The Huffington Post, she has been named as one of Forbes magazine’s most influential women in the media and as one of Time magazine’s most influential people in the world. Prior to her fame, Huffington was a student at Cambridge University, where she majored in economics and became president of the Cambridge Union at 21.
Bulletin: What is a favorite college memory?
Huffington: I particularly remember my third-year room. It was secluded at the end of a little passage, and it looked over the lacrosse field. In the summer term, I moved my bed next to the open window, and I remember regularly being woken up around six by the mistress unintentionally serenading me with Elizabethan poems during her morning walk.
And then there were the after-hours gatherings—including a few in my own room, stocked with stuffed vine leaves and Greek wine—where we chattered away about important topics like, “What would happen if one fell through a hole that went through the center of the earth?”
Bulletin: What made you decide to get involved in the union?
Huffington: While I was in London one weekend, a friend put my name down in the candidates’ book for the upcoming election for the Standing Committee, which governed the union. When I was given the news, I was horrified and immediately asked the chief clerk to withdraw my name. This was not a case of false modesty. It was a case of real fear: I was afraid I would get no votes! Better not to run at all than risk public failure. But the ballots had already been printed. And as it happened, I got enough votes to get elected. But it was a good lesson: Don’t be afraid of failure.
Bulletin:What were some of your responsibilities as Cambridge Union president?
Huffington: Aside from the actual debating, my responsibilities included recruiting speakers, organizing events, and plastering Cambridge with posters, leaflets, and program cards. I was also responsible for the pre-debate dinners at the union. One of the many gaffes I presided over happened the night when the cook chose pork as the main course when the Israeli Ambassador was speaking. But it gave us something to talk about into the middle of the night.
Bulletin: You’ve said previously that your role as a student debater helped you get over a fear of public speaking. What other skills did you gain as a result of your involvement in the Cambridge Union?
Huffington: The most important thing the union gave me was the opportunity to, as another Cambridge alum E.M. Forster said, “only connect”—political ideas and religious beliefs and social systems and people to one another.
Bulletin: How did your experience with the union influence your career progression?
Huffington: Becoming president of the union was the start of many things, including my first book, as it was a union debate that brought me to the attention of Reg Davis-Poynter, the British publisher who offered me a contract and set me on the path to becoming a writer.
Bulletin: What can participation in active debate teach today’s college students?
Huffington: It can teach them, as it taught me, to connect and engage. It’s a skill we desperately need in a world facing multiple crises and a shortage of empathy.
Bulletin: What is the state of civility today? Is it better or worse than a few decades ago?
Huffington: There is a huge difference between passionately disagreeing with your opponents and crudely demonizing them as “the other,” between considering them as adversaries to be engaged and treating them as enemies to be targeted. It’s very easy, as we’ve seen over the last few years, to be willfully blind to the toxicity—partly because we’re swimming in it.
Bulletin: What role do the media have in shaping civil discourse and the public’s perception of today’s leaders?
Huffington: It’s our responsibility to use all the tools at our disposal to hold our leaders accountable and tell the stories that matter most—and to keep telling those stories until we arrive at solutions. Unfortunately, our media have provided far too many autopsies of what went wrong and not enough biopsies of the problems facing us.