Libertarians are live-and-let-live when it comes to cultural issues, and “Arthur’s kids,” a generation of GOP operatives, knew but didn’t care that their hero and mentor, political consultant Arthur Finkelstein, was gay; but neither did they mind that gay bashing was a tool to win elections.
Finkelstein, who died Aug. 18 at age 72, was “outed” in 1996 in an article in Boston magazine. That was the same year he directed strategy for 33 Senate Republicans. By then, political insiders and reporters had known for some time about his family life, which included two daughters that he and his partner had adopted.
The magazine article exposed the disconnect between his personal life and his work to elect anti-gay candidates. Heading the list was North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, whose ads in his 1990 Senate race, crafted by Finkelstein, accused “homosexuals” of “buying this election” for Democrat Harvey Gantt because of Gantt’s support for “mandatory gay rights.”
The article noted that several other Finkelstein clients, Lauch Faircloth (R-NC), Don Nickles (R-OK) and Bob Smith (R-NH), together with Helms, defeated a bill banning anti-gay job discrimination. Faircloth led the fight on the Senate floor for the anti-gay faction, declaring, “Same-sex unions do not make strong families.” Smith opposed gays adopting children. Nickles sponsored the Defense of Marriage Act.
Finkelstein “sells his talents to lawmakers who would outlaw his family’s very existence,” wrote New York Times columnist Frank Rich in 1996.
Finkelstein’s hypocrisy was the justification for outing him, and among his clients, only Faircloth dropped him over the revelation for a short time before rehiring him. “His clients either knew or heard the gossip and suspected, but they focused on his ideas and his polling,” says Craig Shirley, one of “Arthur’s kids,” now a historian writing mainly about Reagan. “If you scratch the surface of a lot of Republicans, they are laisse-faire when it comes to the whole gay issue.” Maybe personally. They sure don’t vote that way.
Roger Stone was one of Arthur’s kids. That’s where he learned how to read polls, “really read polls,” he told The Daily Beast, and how to move public opinion with heavy doses of broadcast television using simple repetitive phrasing. Anti-gay rhetoric under the guise of family values was part of the drill, and it was rarely questioned. Negative ads were part of Arthur’s genius.
“He was against all these things that he was in fact doing,” says Stone. “Arthur just never addressed the issue, but he let his candidates rabble rouse on it. That’s wrong, and I don’t know how he squared it.”
The concept of outing was such a hot button issue because this was a time of uniform homophobia, and people were dying of AIDS. Finkelstein was one of many hypocrites in right-wing politics. He inspired the creation of the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC), a fundraising behemoth whose co-founder and chairman, Terry Dolan, would die of AIDS in 1986 at age 36. Stone recalls a fundraising letter signed by Dolan that included an anti-gay paragraph. Stone says he resigned as treasurer in protest. Shirley says he and others felt “protective” about Dolan, and that their silence was an extension of their libertarian beliefs.
Political scientist Darrell M. West observed at the time, “He uses a sledgehammer in every race,” driving home five favorite phrases, “ultraliberal, super liberal, embarrassingly liberal, foolishly liberal and unbelievably liberal.” When I called West for comment, he added a sixth, “shockingly liberal.”
Demonizing the l-word is one thing, but it’s hard to fathom how a generation of GOP acolytes went along with an individual they knew was gay encouraging clients to use homophobic rhetoric. “We all knew, but it wasn’t important to any of us,” Shirley told The Daily Beast. “Of the thousands of conversations with Arthur that I had from 1997 until earlier this year, we talked about the issue once in a philosophical sense, not about his personal behavior. It seemed impolite to talk about that.”
Stone says Finkelstein “never once acknowledged he was gay.” He kept business and private life separate, he never talked to reporters, he used an assumed name when he checked into hotels, so publicity averse that few photos of him even exist. It’s “fair conjecture” to attribute his elusive behavior to a need to protect his life choices, says Stone.
In December 2004, after an anti-gay referendum on the ballot in Ohio boosted GOP turnout enough to arguably cost Democrat John Kerry the state, and the presidential election, Finkelstein quietly married his longtime partner in a civil ceremony. A statement some months later announcing the marriage was followed by another announcement that Finkelstein was planning to spearhead a “Stop Hillary Now” drive ahead of her 2006 Senate reelection, and that it would be modeled on the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign that had helped derail Kerry.
Former President Bill Clinton stepped into the fray, saying, “Either this guy believes his party is not serious and he’s totally Machiavellian or he may be blinded by self-loathing,” an obvious reference to Finkelstein being gay in a party that gains votes by being anti-gay. Clinton caught hell for his remark. The Daily News likened it to Kerry’s attempt to interject Vice President Cheney’s gay daughter into the final presidential debate in 2004 when the candidates were asked if they believe homosexuality is a choice.
“If you were to talk to Dick Cheney’s daughter, who is a lesbian, she would tell you that she’s being who she was, she’s being who she was born as,” Kerry replied. The comment was meant to call out the Republicans for their hypocrisy, but it backfired politically when even Democrats joined Republicans in seeing it as gratuitously exploitative.
Attitudes were changing, and it was deemed dirty pool to challenge Finkelstein about the contradiction between his private life and the politics he practiced. His heyday over, and his reputation secure as a groundbreaking pollster, Finkelstein worked mainly abroad in his later years, concentrating on conservative candidates in Israel, including Prime Minister Netanyahu.
If he had any regrets about helping elect candidates with anti-gay rhetoric and ads, he kept them to himself. “He told me Trump tried to hire him and he turned Trump down,” says Shirley. “Makes sense, Trump is pretty far from a libertarian or a traditional Republican. He just wouldn’t work for anybody.” But he worked for a lot of somebodies who voted to prevent him from making a union with the man he loved.