Not Just Good at National Politics, but the Best
Shunning the limelight, the legendary GOP consultant Arthur Finkelstein changed the world.
by CRAIG SHIRLEY January 26, 2017 4:00 AM
‘Good morning!” Each time we speak by phone, I hear this slightly amused and amusing lyrical greeting in Arthur’s distinctive, Jewish-Brooklyn accent. I have for 40 years, no less.
So has everyone else who has ever dealt with Arthur Jay Finkelstein, simply the greatest and most controversial, the most ethical and most successful political consultant and pollster in the history of American politics. Those who matter in politics are familiar with Arthur, but no one beyond that; which is the way Arthur likes it. He’s never been the face of a wristwatch, but the gears would not run without him. While other consultants run to the spotlight, Arthur has always run away from it. “If you haven’t heard of him before, it’s because he made sure you didn’t,” he was once described in a profile in The Huffington Post. It continued:
As CNN reported in 1996: “He is the stuff of Hollywood: A man who can topple even the most powerful foes, yet so secretive that few have ever seen him.” Finkelstein has been compared to criminal mastermind Kaiser Sose in The Usual Suspects, who lay so low that some doubted he really existed. CNN captioned its photo, “Only known photo of Arthur Finkelstein.” This after years in big-time politics. No other political consultant can make such a claim.
Long before anyone else in the modern age, Arthur taught Republicans how to win. At one point in the early 1980s, maybe half of the GOP senators were Finkelstein clients and even more in the House. He was a modern Prometheus, bringing fire to Republicankind.
He greets all alike — and they certainly are many — from the lowliest campaign aide to prime ministers and presidents. As always, Arthur is supremely confident, and yet often shy and self-effacing. Truth be told, he is also a soft touch. Once, when a losing campaign reneged on its pledge to pay for an airline ticket, one of Arthur’s “kids” called him, desperately broke. Arthur paid for the ticket. Such stories are legion.
As I write this, I still can’t believe Arthur Finkelstein is ailing. Badly. It can’t be. Arthur has always been Arthur: a fun and principled conservative consultant to hundreds of campaigns, but he was much, much more than that. He quite literally changed our world. Arthur made a difference. He’s struggling through chemotherapy now, and as with everything in life, there is more than a particle of risk. Still, this is a tribute to our friend Arthur, not a eulogy. Not yet anyway.
Early in our friendship, I asked him whether it was “Finkelsteen” or “Finkelstine” (with a long i), and Arthur characteristically replied, “If I was a poor Jew, it would be Finkelsteen, but since I am a rich Jew, it’s Finkelstine.” He’d plucked me out of a NCPAC (National Conservative Political Action Committee) campaign school in 1977, and we’ve been friends and he’s been my mentor ever since. He abhors being called Art, and those who don’t know him, when they make that mistake, will be met with that sardonic grin on his face.
In the maturation of his libertarian philosophy, he had the best educator in the world while at Columbia, Ayn Rand, with whom he sometimes shared a college radio show. After graduating, he later cut his teeth in polling, working for the legendary Bud Lewis at NBC and later still for the famed Richard M. Scammon, who was the only pollster to predict the election of Harry Truman in 1948. Dick Scammon later served as director of the U.S. Census. What an early education: Rand, Lewis, and Scammon. Arthur later fell in with a group of New York City intellectual libertarians led by Rand and including Alan Greenspan, scion of New York’s café society. Arthur also worked on the 1972 Nixon reelection and afterward quipped that he was the highest-ranking member of the campaign not to be indicted.
Arthur never puts on airs, is always found grinning, sometimes giggling, ideas constantly flowing. I have never heard him laugh out loud, but neither have I ever seen him lose his temper. I never heard him badmouth anyone, but you know who he likes and who he respects and who he does not, often dismissing them with a simple roll of his eyes. He loves the New York Yankees, steak and onion rings, his family including Donald, his campaign “kids,” Las Vegas, horse-betting, and winning campaigns, not necessarily in that order. Reagan Library director John Heubusch, himself once one of Arthur’s “kids,” praised his ability to read polls, spot trends, and “predict to a tenth of a point what the outcome of the election will be. . . . If he was only so good at reading race forms at Belmont.” But as with so many others, there was also personal warmth. Heubusch calls Arthur “a real humanitarian. A mentor par excellence.” Many others, including Arthur kids John and Jim McLaughlin, say the same or similar.
Arthur is the anti–Mike Murphy, the anti–Republican establishment consultant. Long before others went with the no-tie look, Arthur was always garbed in chinos, a frayed blue blazer, a blue button-down shirt, and an untied tie, which had seen better days, dangled around his neck. You knew he was making sport of the establishment with his grunge, un-establishment look. Often, he sported a two-day growth — again, long before it became fashionable. Talk to a reporter or appear on cable television? Perish the thought! Arthur would sell his soul before going on Fox News or MSNBC, where most GOP consultants are found today. Arthur would rather work in the trenches and win a campaign than pose as a celebrity consultant, going on cable television and talking about winning campaigns.
Prior to Karl Rove’s whiteboard Arthur was often seen taking a pencil from behind his ear to scratch out political theories, ad concepts, speech concepts, and other ideas on a yellow legal tablet. Long before people were talking about three-legged stools and other such tomfoolery, Arthur had developed the more thoughtful Six-Party Theory. This Six-Party Theory originated in the 1970s as a means to explain how Republicans could attract Democrats through conservative ideology and win a majority. Conservative Democrats were the key. Conservatives outnumbered liberals roughly two to one. The six parties broke down as: Moderate/Liberal Republicans, Conservative Republicans, Conservative Democratic Theocrats (mostly Southern and blue-collar), African-Americans/Hispanics, White Liberal Democratic McGovernites, and Moderate Democrats. When he explained it, it made perfect sense. His ability to condense a difficult theory into layman’s words was but one of the ways that he showed his genius. The grand old man of North Carolina politics, Tom Ellis, once quipped, “Just knock on his head and he’ll give you a great idea.”
Arthur remains the standard by which all political consultants are measured or should be measured. For him, it was always about the cause of freedom, of personal dignity and privacy. He is gay, yet no one ever cared. He is married to Donald and no one cared. It was almost never about him.
He was simply too interested in other things. He was a throwback, deeming winning and substance more important than style. He thought the candidate, not the consultant, should be the star. Sometimes he would look at GOP “strategists” on television, shake his head, and muse over what campaigns they had ever worked on. In this era of political dirty tricks, Arthur remains appalled at the thought that anyone would try to win illegitimately. For all his worldliness, he remains almost naïve and childlike about such things. Dirty tricks? I never knew a man more incapable of doing a dishonest or dishonorable thing. Dirty tricks? Arthur never understood that world, a world too familiar to too many GOP operatives.
Title and access to power never interested him. In 1985, Lee Atwater tried to coax Finkelstein into a meeting with Vice President George H. W. Bush, hoping to enticing the plebeian New Yorker to support the country-club patrician. Arthur, afraid he might like Bush, declined the meeting.
Arthur later tried to entice Jeane Kirkpatrick into the race, and few realize how close the U.N. ambassador came to running for president in 1988. She finally decided against it, although polling showed she could beat Bush in Iowa. But “she did what any woman would do,” Kirkpatrick quipped on a phone call that he later related to John McLaughlin. “Got her hair done and decided not to run.”
During the Reagan presidency, Ed Meese, Jim Baker, and Mike Deaver each had his own favorite GOP pollster. For Ed, it was Dick Wirthlin; for Jim, Bob Teeter. For Mike, it was Arthur, but Mike never made a big move without Nancy Reagan’s approval. This meant that Mrs. Reagan liked Arthur too.
Arthur knew he was good and he suffered no fools, especially with his less accomplished but more popular brethren, because he literally changed the world.
Can one man make a difference? You bet, and one need only look at the record for the historical proof. Without Arthur Finkelstein, Ronald Reagan might never have become president of the United States. In 1976, the Gipper challenged incumbent Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination but unexpectedly lost the first five primaries. Reeling, Reagan was heavily in debt. Everybody in the GOP establishment was calling on him to throw in the towel, except a small group of hardy conservatives, including Finkelstein. They made their last stand in North Carolina.
Senator Jesse Helms and his aide Tom Ellis brought in Arthur to help on the desperate Reagan campaign there. They’d seen Finkelstein work miracles before, having steered Helms to a win in the Tar Heel State in 1972, at a time when Republicans in North Carolina were atypical. Arthur had burst onto the political scene in 1970, guiding Jim Buckley to an astonishing win in the New York Senate race, with Buckley running only on the Conservative line, beating two better-known candidates. Finkelstein scripted the Reagan effort, helped unearth the Panama Canal treaties as a sleeper issue, wrote the TV and radio spots, and had Helms’s young aide Carter Wrenn go out to county courthouses and — something unheard of in national politics at the time — cobble together a mailing list of 110,000 Republican primary voters in the state.
Reagan, in one of the biggest upsets in American politics, won the North Carolina primary, re-energizing his campaign for the second half of the contest before the GOP convention in Kansas City. Reagan lost to Ford by the narrowest of delegate margins, 1,187 to 1,070. Ford had all the power of incumbency on his side, while Reagan had only himself and a handful of loyal conservatives such as Finkelstein. Though Reagan lost in Kansas City, he went on to win the hearts and minds of Republicans nationwide, winning the 1980 nomination and then beating Jimmy Carter in a historic landslide that changed the world. Without that win in North Carolina in 1976, none of that future Reagan history would have happened.
By the way, Arthur later that year did the same in Texas, where Reagan trounced Ford, winning all 96 delegates. Finkelstein changed our world.
Arthur did all of Helms’s campaigns and created the permanent campaign before the phrase was coined, using Helms’s Congressional Club to boost the senator and bury his opponents. But he was never just an order-taker. He argued vociferously that Helms should stop his opposition to a federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. After one tussle, Arthur emerged and said to John McLaughlin, “Won’t budge. Thinks King was a Communist” — and then, in a burst of dark humor, told him, “You’ve really got to be an extremist and not want a day off.” In 1984, Helms was down by 30 points in the polls, but Arthur brought him back to win, defying the predictions of all. Arthur routinely won unwinnable races. In 1978, in New Hampshire, Arthur won the Senate race with a candidate who’d lived in the state less than four years. In 1980, one of his many victories included that of the contentious Al D’Amato in the Senate race in New York. About using D’Amato’s mother in a commercial, Finkelstein quipped to McLaughlin, “We had to prove Alfonse had a mother.” Still, there was a mutual fondness and respect.
In 1996, Arthur handled the campaign of Bibi Netanyahu, the current prime minister of Israel. Again, history was made. Without the election of the “Israel Now and Forever” hardliner Netanyahu, would Israel even exist today? Just to prove that it was no fluke, Arthur steered him to further victories. For the past 20 years, in addition to his work in the U.S., he has expanded his portfolio to include winning campaigns in Kosovo, Austria, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Israel, where he guided Ariel Sharon to victory twice.
I asked him what his greatest source of pride was, and his greatest disappointment. Without missing a beat, he said that writing the immortal words at the base of the 9/11 memorial in New York City gave him the greatest satisfaction: “To honor and remember those who lost their lives on September 11, 2001, and as a tribute to the enduring spirit of freedom.” To know Arthur is to know at heart he is a romantic. He has always seen campaigns and his life as an idealistic struggle for liberty against the dark forces of collectivism. His biggest disappointment was an obscure campaign in Massachusetts 40 years ago, because the candidate had a chance and was much like Arthur in his political outlook. He still laments that loss.
Arthur is also the greatest collector and cultivator of political talent in the history of the GOP. Some of his “kids” over the years have included the aforementioned John McLaughlin, Jim McLaughlin, John Heubusch, and Carter Wrenn but also Mari Maseng Will, Charlie Black, Roger Stone, Tony Fabrizio, Zorine Bhappu Shirley, Gary Maloney, Alex Castellanos, Rick Reed, Kieran Mahoney, Barbara Fiala, Craig Engle, Frank Luntz, Jim Murphy, Beth Meyers, Larry Weitzner, Matt Brooks, Ari Fleischer, Terry Dolan, and Brent Bozell, to name just a few. There has always been a certain swagger among Arthur’s kids, as they knew and understood politics better than anyone else. At least they believed that. The few who traveled with Arthur became known as “Little Arthurs” It was all great fun, but it was also to a larger purpose. We believed we were saving Western civilization. Check that. We knew we were saving Western civilization. And we were fearless, as we’d been taught by Arthur. There was always an allure to being one of Arthur’s kids.
His campaign operations have always been joyous affairs, part ideology, part road crew for the Grateful Dead. We were kids, oh, we were young kids. When other consultants shunted us aside, Arthur gave us a break, put us in positions of authority, and mentored us, all us — taught us, encouraged us, to be winners for a reason. A pebble drops in a pond, and the concentric circles go on forever.
His loving and devoted brother, Ronnie, held it all together for so many years, keeping sanity and rationality part of the equation. Yet he never interfered with the many lost causes Arthur wanted to pursue. I was once tasked many years ago to go to Pimlico race track and get down a $2,000 bet for the Finklestein boys. The horse won and Ronnie was giddy, but also generous with me for getting to the track on time.
Arthur is a non-practicing Jew, yet I somehow suspect he would have made a very good rabbi or pastor or priest or psychiatrist, given his spot-on and often compassionate advice. At least, he would have made a good act of it. But his real Walter Mitty fantasy is probably to manage the New York Yankees or own a casino. Still, he believes Thoreau’s admonition and warning: “The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes got in its way.” And he happens to be not just good at national politics, but the best. Ever. Heubusch said it for all who have known him: “There has never been a more talented genius in the polling and political consulting business than Arthur Finkelstein.”
“Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion,” Dolly Parton speaks softly in the movie Steel Magnolias. I understand the feeling. I am laughing at the many, many memories of Arthur, of the man who taught me so much, who introduced my wife Zorine and me 35 years ago, and who is now ailing. And there are tears.
We who are Arthur’s kids, and many others, lament, even as Arthur remains indomitably optimistic against all odds. He’s not going gentle into that good night. “Applaud, my friends, the comedy is finished.” Beethoven’s aphorism notwithstanding, Arthur’s comedy is not over. Not yet, anyway.
I can’t imagine a world without Arthur J. Finkelstein. We know few men who have lived a more honest existence, a more honorable existence, or who have had a greater impact on so many, so much, for so long and to such great good. Arthur was and is our North, our South, our East, and our West.
Good luck and Godspeed, Arthur.
— Craig Shirley is a Reagan biographer and presidential historian.