Laurie David, then-wife of the dyspeptic Larry, soon joins them, and Peretti is whisked along on a private jet for a flight to Sacramento for a rally in support of the Senate candidacy of Phil Angelides. In the course of a few hours, Peretti would watch with wonderment as Arianna Huffington eased herself from setting to setting, all the while making the person she was talking with feel like the most interesting and important person in the world, hanging on every word, never shifting her attention to check one of three BlackBerries. “I loved being a gatherer,” Huffington would later say. “I don’t really think you can make gathering mistakes.”
Peretti saw this talent through a different prism. “Arianna,” he says, “can make weak ties into strong ties.”
He returned to New York to discover that Lerer was already a few steps ahead of him. He wanted to talk about the venture the three of them would embark upon. “I remember him saying things like, ‘We don’t want to build a big website,’” Peretti would recall. “‘We want to build an influential site.’”
Precisely what occurred at the Huffington home in Brentwood a few weeks later, after George W. Bush’s defeat of John Kerry in 2004, is open to both debate and litigation. The nature of the dispute has to do with who exactly came up with the idea for what would become Huffington Post. All sorts of well-connected people—all connected to Arianna—had all sorts of ideas about how people of fame and influence on the left could make that influence felt. Among the 30 or so people invited—Larry David, Norman Lear, Meg Ryan, David Geffen—was one conservative outlier, Matt Drudge’s associate, the late Andrew Breitbart, who would later tell Wired that the site was his idea all along. Two other participants, Democratic consultants Peter Daou and James Boyce, would insist that the idea was theirs, and would six years later sue Huffington and Lerer. The case is pending.
Still, the sense of those assembled was that the left needed an answer to the power of Matt Drudge—the secretive, right-leaning loner who had become the political world’s primary purveyor of content and opinion—and that perhaps Arianna’s many friends could help. People offered suggestions about how this might work. Lerer, as was his habit, said almost nothing; he had long cultivated the reputation of a canny strategist by being a good listener who waited until everyone else had their say before offering a trenchant opinion. Yet there was one constant in the comments: how to make best use of the growing fascination with blogging.
The phenomenon had with remarkable speed spawned a culture whose chief practitioners celebrated the end of the traditional way information flowed: top to bottom. No longer, the blogging champions claimed, would the power to disseminate ideas and information reside with the legacy news organizations. The Web had made everyone a publisher—even, it was repeated endlessly, the fellow who stayed in his pajamas all day.
Back in New York, Peretti reasoned that to try to replicate Drudge by being like Drudge would do no good. Those competitors who had tried—Drudge Retort, BuzzFlash—had gained little traction. “You could be 50 percent better but it wouldn’t matter,” he later said. “No one would need it.” Drudge already owned the franchise on what Peretti called “stickiness”—the capacity to have readers return, time and again.
While Drudge was sticky, so too were the bloggers, many of whom presented ideas that could be shared and, as a result, created communities among like-minded people, clusters. Clusters, while tightly knit, tended to grow slowly. Peretti wanted to grow fast.