by Ken Feltman
Joe Napolitan was my friend and mentor. He invited me to work with him around the world. He opened doors and helped me succeed. I would never have had those opportunities without Joe and Michel Bongrand of France, with whom Joe co-founded the International Association of Political Consultants.
Joe respected everyone, worked with all. If you asked for his help, you got it. He was a Democrat and I am a Republican. That never mattered. He sought common ground with me. Then, we went to work.
He never gloated in victory and was gracious and warm in his rare defeats. He always had time for his friends and for anyone wanting to learn about politics and elections. Joe was ingenious. He was a small “d” democrat first and a large “D” Democrat after that.
Once, in Spain, he and I were to be interviewed by a local reporter. Before the interview, he suggested that we “script” some political differences so that, as “enemigos,” we could give the reporter a more interesting story. He advised me that his review of the reporter’s recent articles shed light on what the reporter might ask and where we might have “vulnerabilities.” He even had ideas for how I could respond to the tough questions in a way that would gently change the subject.
He had analyzed the situation perfectly and prepared me as he would a client. The interview went according to his script. Frankly, Joe directed the dscussion and moved to new topics when he saw the reporter start to close in and we both avoided our “vulnerabilities.” The reporter told us in concluding that we were the most open Americans that she had ever interviewed. Usually, she said, Americans were guarded and defensive.
The one time we were on opposite sides in a campaign, I was engaged in building a coalition of business-friendly parties in the Republic of Georgia when I learned that Joe was meeting with his client (who was part of our coalition but critical of our stategy of a slower transition of power from Soviet-era leadership). They were meeting in Vienna, one of our mutual favorite cities. I speculated that Joe would advise his young U.S.-educated client to change the subject.
Then I Iearned that someone was buying up old Georgian flags (the flag of the five crosses) and shipping them to Tbilisi. We knew that Georgians despised the ugly flag that had been imposed upon them by Moscow; we knew that Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze believed that flags did not matter. Then a dozen roses arrived with a note: “We must avoid bloodshed.”
The next thing I knew, Mikhail Saakashvili lead the Rose Revolution amid hundreds of five crosses flags and thousands of demonstrators presenting roses to government soldiers. This was Joe Napolitan at his creative best. Shevardnadze resigned. No blood was spilled.
Later I met with President Saakashvili in Paris to make peace and concluded that he was looking for a showdown with Moscow, convinced that he would have U.S. support. Still later, his prime minister, Zurab Zhvania, died mysteriously in his apartment in Tbilisi. Only a few days before, Zhvania told me at lunch in Washingon that he was not so sure of U.S. support.
Joe Naplitan was a gentleman. Invariably kind, he seemed to seek out ways to be helpful, whether grabbing someone’s suitcase at the airport or sending a note on special occasions.
What a generous, sharing life he lived. Thank you, Joe. You made the difference in so many lives. See you in Reykjavik!