Mark Mellman: The death of the original

Once upon a time, a barber stopped cutting hair and devoted himself full time to cutting people — not to kill, but to cure.

Émile Durkheim taught us the history of professions is the drive toward specialization. While barbers once doubled as surgeons, today we have hand surgeons and heart surgeons, brain surgeons and vein surgeons. We don’t know the name of that first surgeon. We do know the name of the first political consultant. He died last week after a career spent winning elections, spreading democracy and displaying kindness to everyone he met.

Before Joe Napolitan, lawyers, lobbyists and cronies managed campaigns and doled out advice to candidates. But Joe, like that barber surgeon of old, turned his craft (political consulting) into a profession — indeed, he literally invented that title and founded the American Association of Political Consultants and the International Association of Political Consultants. 

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He outlived many of his contemporaries, dying at 84, but many consultants of the current generation don’t know Joe’s name, even though he gave us so many of the techniques we use, and many don’t recall the races that made him legendary.

He worked for still famous names like John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Late in 1968, he was asked to join Hubert Humphrey’s campaign as director of media. Humphrey was then trailing Richard Nixon by 15 points. Joe fired Humphrey’s Madison Avenue ad agency, commissioned message-oriented polling (which was then new) and put a camera crew on the campaign trail to film real-life interactions from which he created a half-hour film for television. The polls, the vérité style, the half-hour program were all innovations Joe pioneered that have become standard campaign fare — and brought Humphrey to within 0.7 percent of Nixon.

Fewer remember Milton Shapp, one of the first of a new breed of candidates, a wealthy outsider with no political background who wanted to be governor. Joe unveiled a compelling theme: “The Man Against The Machine.” This masterstroke of messaging and sloganeering gave the previously unknown Shapp the nomination and, later, the governorship.

For Mike Gravel, who was taking on popular incumbent Ernest Gruening in 1966, Joe conducted his message polls and developed a potent new slogan, “Alaska first.” In another innovation, Gravel authored a campaign book titled Jobs and More Jobs. Joe reversed a 2-to-1 Gruening lead, and Gravel won.

In Hawaii, Joe defended incumbent Gov. Jack Burns, who began his 1970 reelection race 20 points behind and came across as a sour-faced old man. Making another film, Joe, who understood the role of emotion, shot 100 minutes of film for every one minute that made the final cut. The music Joe selected was a Beach Boys song, “Catch a Wave,” which became the campaign’s theme and later the title of a biography of Burns, who surfed to reelection.

Joe was also the first international political consultant, working in 20 countries.

But while he wined, dined and smoked cigars with presidents and prime ministers, Joe always had time for newbies. I was thrilled to get an occasional email from him about this column.

More important, without even knowing it, Joe got me started. Hired to do my first campaign and having academic knowledge but precious little practical experience, I did what Ivy Leaguers do: I went to the library. There, more than a decade after it was published,

I found Joe’s classic, The Election Game and How To Win It. I devoured it, re-reading the book until the pages were worn. I learned about message and field and focus. I learned how to win the race that put me in business.

Joe Napolitan, the founder of our industry, an innovator beyond compare and a wonderful human being, was a giant upon whose shoulders I, and every political consultant, stand.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.