Saying Goodbye to a Legend

Me on the left, Arthur Finkelstein on the right.

The luckiest thing that ever happened to me in my lifetime was I got a chance to work with and to learn from the legendary Arthur Finkelstein.

Now, you’re probably saying to yourself, “Arthur who?” which is totally understandable since, although he was one of the world’s foremost political consultants and pollsters, Arthurpersistently avoided the limelight.

But people in the political industry sure knew him.

So when Arthur died at the age of 72 a few weeks ago, his passing made headline news in the Washington Post and New York Times.

In its obituary the Times called Arthur a “reclusive political Svengali who revolutionized campaign polling and financing”; for its part the Washington Post called him a “quietly influential GOP campaign mastermind.”

Me, I just called Arthur a friend and a mentor.

So how is it, a Canadian like me, got a chance to know and become friends with a bona fide genius like Arthur Finkelstein, a man who crafted countless successful political campaigns for presidents, governors, Senators and prime ministers?

Well, from 1982 until 1996 Arthur was a consultant for the National Citizens Coalition, Canada’s largest pro-free market advocacy group.

I started working there in 1985 as a communications director and that’s when I met him.

And at first, I regarded Arthur as a somewhat intimidating figure, which is to say he scared the heck out of me; he was a tough, no-nonsense Brooklynite, while I, fresh out of university, was just an inexperienced punk kid who didn’t have a clue.

But I guess Arthur saw something in me.

Although he pointed out my mistakes and failings in no uncertain terms, he also encouraged me and pushed me to do my job better.

Then, as I got better at my job, as my confidence grew, I came to appreciate how fate had provided me with a unique opportunity to learn my trade from a world class master.

I was like an artist studying under Michelangelo or a musician studying under Mozart.

And boy did he teach me a lot about how to do politics.

He taught me, for instance, how to use polling numbers to discover the weaknesses of your opponent and then he showed me how to exploit those weaknesses relentlessly and ruthlessly.

Indeed, although Arthur didn’t invent the “attack ad”, he certainly perfected it as a weapon. As someone once put it, “He uses a sledgehammer in every race.’’

He also taught me how to write effective ad copy, how to pen successful fundraising pitches and how to deal with the media.

But it wasn’t just the nuts and bolts of political communication strategy that I learned from Arthur.

He also taught me about the importance of professional integrity and ethics.

For one thing, he always insisted on honesty. As he once jokingly told me, “I only slander people with the truth.”

So yes, I owe Arthur a lot.

Of course, I wasn’t the only one who benefited from his mentoring.

A whole of generation of political operatives currently working in the US and elsewhere are, like me, Arthur’s disciples — or as they’re sometimes called, “Arthur’s kids.”

Anyway, given his importance in my life, Arthur’s death has left me a bit jolted.

We hadn’t worked together for years, but we kept in touch and he was always there for me whenever I needed his advice or guidance.

Now he’s gone and I will miss his wit, his humour and his generous friendship.

But I’m a better person for knowing him, and I will always be proud to count myself as one of “Arthur’s kids”

(Note this column originally appeared in the Ottawa Hill Times.)

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