Zev Chafet’s Roger Ailes: Off Camera is an excellent book, well-paced and crisp, as perceptive, unpretentious, and entertaining as its subject.1 As is appropriate for a book about an entertainment and journalism personality, most of the material is anecdotal—when publishing such a biography, there are rarely primary source papers and documents worth waiting for as there generally are with statesmen. The author is a well-traveled New York journalist who has had as good a vantage point as anyone who is not an intimate to appreciate the talents and achievements of Roger Ailes, the president of Fox News and media consultant for numerous Republican campaigns. And his factual, unembellished, refreshingly informal treatment of his subject is a pleasure and a relief. Mr. Chafets seems never to have been tempted by the raging pandemic to monumentalize the writer’s subject as biographers of other media figures have tended to do. In retrospect, Ronald Steele’s ponderous weighing of the life and influence of Walter Lippmann seems excessive, and Douglas Brinkley’s workmanlike life of Walter Cronkite is an attempted transplant of gravitas to a man about whom the dirty little secret was that he was a dunce. Walter Cronkite had a reassuring moustache, like Marshal Pétain, not a raffish and threatening one like Errol Flynn, as well as a country-doctor manner. But he was a very simple observer who, like many war correspondents, took his comfortable place in the baggage train of the victorious Allied armies as a license to pontificate on international matters, of which his understanding was very limited, for the next fifty years.
This book about Roger Ailes starts and ends with the question, posed by the subject himself: Is Roger Ailes complicated or simple? The reader is invited to decide, and I think the answer is, in the positive sense, simple: a very intelligent, fiercely motivated, overwhelmingly competent master of both the techniques of appealing to American middle and traditional working class tastes and values, and the running of an organization to accomplish that. The book follows the chronology of Ailes’s career from a hemophiliac youth who yet aspired to collegiate sports teams and to be an air force pilot, through an early television career replete with the inevitable comical episodes: the piranhas that declined to perform on camera; the Rolling Stones whom Ailes initially considered “no-talent shitheads”; the young Barbra Streisand who interrupted her own song, during a nightclub appearance Ailes arranged, to scream coarsely at a much-talking priest, to shut up; and keeping Richard Nixon and the stripper with the trained boa constrictor, Little Egypt, in separate dressing rooms when they were both appearing on his program in Philadelphia.
If becoming the producer of the Mike Douglas show in his mid-twenties was his first break, meeting Richard Nixon was the second. The account here of the 1960 election is over-simplified (the election probably was stolen and Nixon’s wan appearance in the first debate was far from the whole story) and the gloss-over of Watergate, though the book makes no pretense to being the history of that bizarre event, is also misleading. I do not believe Nixon thought there was any chance that the Kennedys could steal the 1972 election, as it is alleged Ailes thought he did. But the Nixon camp’s reservations about Ailes in 1968 are understandable given that Ailes was quoted as saying of him that many
think [Nixon] a bore, a pain in the ass . . . the kind of kid who always carried a book-bag, who was forty-two years old the day he was born. . . . He’d always have his homework done and he’d never let you copy. . . . He looks like someone hung him in a closet overnight and he jumps out in the morning with his suit all bunched up and starts running around saying “I want to be president.”
In the next twenty-three years, Ailes orchestrated 140 campaigns, and won the great majority of them, and even when he lost “was never out-produced or out-maneuvered.” (Though the egregious leftist Democratic activist Paul Begala did famously claim that Ailes was “a Madison Avenue blowhard.” He would be unlikely to repeat the allegation now.) He developed a great many rules of thumb and aphorisms (“When a candidate starts saying ‘We,’ it usually means his wife is involved,” he averred, warily.) He salvaged the senatorial election for the unfeasible Alphonse D’Amato in 1980, played a role in easing Reagan’s path to his mighty landslide reelection in 1984, and had the intuitive genius to see at once that the Dukakis campaign film of their man in a (military) tank, wearing a flak-jacket, and smiling goofily under a helmet would win the election for George H. W. Bush in 1988. And he did demur from some of the wilder antics of campaign manager Lee Atwater, who joked that by the time he had finished the country would think that the rapist and murderer Willie Horton, whom Dukakis, as governor of Massachusetts, had paroled between crimes, was his vice-presidential candidate. Ailes became, and remains, friendly with Rush Limbaugh, who said: “With Roger Ailes, you don’t lose.”
One of the few disappointments in this book is that it didn’t go a little further in explaining how the alternate media to the uniform leftward slant of the Edward R. Murrow–Walter Cronkite–Chris Matthews–New York Times media developed. Ailes’s role in the launch and success of Fox News, the supreme and triumphant enemy of the old national liberal media machine, is thoroughly recounted, but the reason why the stale liberal monopoly became so vulnerable is not, other than the rather superficial treatment of Watergate. It is now clear that when cant and emotionalism had subsided after that rending controversy, vast segments of the American public had grave misgivings that a distinguished administration had been destroyed for insufficient reason. As a consequence, the entire American effort in Southeast Asia was squandered, with the resulting deaths of millions of non-Communist Vietnamese and Cambodians. And, to magnify the backlash, the authors of the bloodless assassination of the Nixon administration (though it must be said that Nixon’s own foibles greatly assisted the work of his enemies) have never ceased to shower themselves with professional awards and clubby commendations.
The engagement of Ailes by Rupert Murdoch to launch and build Fox News is already, rightly, a legendary exchange between history’s most formidable and imaginative media owner and one of the authentic geniuses of the history of television and political management. Murdoch had the vision, and identified Ailes as the necessary person to bring to life his concept of a twenty-four–hour news network that would pitch to the majority of Americans who were to the right of what they were uniformly fed by the national media. Murdoch invited Ailes to come and see him, outlined his plan, and said: “The question is whether it can be done.” Ailes replied that it could, if it were done within six months to get in ahead of MSNBC in a field already occupied by the cable-news pioneer, CNN. It would be a start-up from scratch—there were no studios or personnel. Murdoch asked how much it would cost; Ailes said $900 million to $1 billion. “Can you do it?,” Murdoch asked. “Yes,” said Ailes. “Then go ahead and do it,” said Murdoch. Not since General Eisenhower said to the assembled general staff of the Western Allies in reference to the long-awaited invasion of northwest Europe, “O.K. Let’s go” has a more important and correct command decision been so succinctly formulated. Journalism schools of the future will wait centuries for a better example of conception and execution of an ambitious and revolutionary media initiative (and Murdoch had had his share already, including buying the London Sun from the competing Daily Mirror and then surpassing the Mirror; shattering the antediluvian and corrupt London printing trades unions, and cracking open the U.S. television network triopoly).
Ted Turner, no small pioneer himself, but a shrill cheerleader in the liberal media hallelujah chorus, told the press: “I look forward to crushing Rupert Murdoch like a bug.” Turner later regularly compared Murdoch to Hitler, in the way of self-made American billionaires who don’t know much about the history of civilization. Murdoch’s character has its disappointing aspects, but comparing him to Hitler, even as a personality (assumedly not even Turner was suggesting that he was a genocidal warmonger), is an outrage. Even allowing for the easy-access hyperbole of that genre of the opinionated American parvenu rich, Turner’s was a charge that illustrated the smugness and predilection to instant moral levitation of the traditional American establishment left-wing media.
When the former New York Times managing editor Bill Keller last year referred to Roger Ailes’s chosen slogan for Fox News when he launched it, “Fair and Balanced,” as “a slogan for suckers,” Ailes replied in a speech at Ohio University (his alma mater) that gave the Times and its kindred incumbents in the long liberal occupation of the commanding heights of the American media a taste of how he and Murdoch and Limbaugh and others had changed the parlor game that the Times had been complacently hosting for more than sixty years. He called the Times “a cesspool of bias” and its reporters “lying scum.” For all those who have suffered through the long night of American national media condescension to those few politicians that they could not defeat, especially Eisenhower and Reagan, and the venomous treachery to those whom they could, especially Richard Nixon, and their priggish, bigoted mockery of the traditional values of ruggedly individualistic, free market, Judeo-Christian America, Murdoch and Ailes and the others are, if not messianic saviors, the seventh cavalry coming, with thundering hooves and sounding bugles in the dust of redemption, to the rescue American social and political virtue.
Roger Ailes has been not just an invincible general in the war of liberation against the great liberal tyranny and the propagation of its death wish for traditional America. He has also fought with the verbal precision and sting that would be familiar to an award-winning Broadway producer, which he was. (His The Hot l Baltimore won three Obies and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for best American play of 1973.) At a Harlem church on Martin Luther King Day, Ailes told a congregation that expected to hear something about the merits of racial identity politics that “American” should be defined in practice as embracing everyone. “Every month is something else. I’m waiting for Lithuanian Midget Month,” he said before claiming to have had a relative who was a Lithuanian midget. And he has not hesitated to exchange fire ad hominem with his opponents. He faced down candidate Barack Obama, as he once had murderer Charles Manson, and called Obama a liar. He professes to like the vice president but publicly described Joe Biden as “dumb as an ashtray.” Of the Nobel Prize-winning leftist economist Paul Krugman, he said, “All Krugman wants to do is give away money. That’s his answer to everything. He’s a dope but nobody wants to say it because he wins awards.” He has exposed the hypocrisy of Media Matters, an amen-corner for the liberal media orthodoxy.
Despite efforts by the left to portray Ailes as an extremist, he is nothing of the kind. The presidents whose pictures adorn his home and office are Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower. He discreetly and elegantly moved Glenn Beck off of Fox when Beck sailed off the charts. He is a patriotic capitalist who believes in the average person and defends him against the elites, from the ivory tower to the liberal media patriciate to the plutocrats. He wrote to George W. Bush after the 2001 terrorist attacks that “The only thing America won’t forgive you for is under-reacting.” Roger Ailes is not “Times Nation” but he is the evocator and voice of the “Silent Majority.” This author makes more than he should of the practicing Roman Catholics at Fox, such as Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Megyn Kelly. There are presumably plenty of practicing Protestants and Jews also. Ailes is a respecter of sane religions. And his human qualities are on display throughout this book, as son, brother, husband, father, and employer. He defended Robert and Ethel Kennedy’s son Douglas, when he was accused of wrongfully removing his child from the care of hospital nurses. When the moderator Neil Cavuto was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Cavuto said it might cause him “to lose (his) train of thought on the air.” Ailes said “Hell, you already do that.” “And I could lose the use of my legs.” “So what? If you do, we’ll build you a ramp.” He backs his people fully and enjoys great loyalty from them. When let down by an employee, he is harsh, though still amusing. He described Mary Matalin and Jane Wallace as “girls who, if you went into a bar around seven, you wouldn’t pay a lot of attention, but they got to be tens around closing time.” When Paula Zahn defected to CNN, Ailes commented that he could have got better ratings with a “dead raccoon,” and one of his spokesmen said her new show was like repainting an outhouse.
This book is a lively and informative read about a very accomplished and likeable man.
1 Roger Ailes: Off Camera, by Zev Chafets; Sentinel, 272 pages, $26.95.