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Roger Ailes and the dark arts

Roger Ailes and the dark arts

Five years ago in Rolling Stone, Tim Dickinson described Roger Ailes as 'one of the most skilled and fearsome' operatives in the history of the Republican Party.

As a political consultant, Ailes repackaged Richard Nixon for television in 1968, papered over Ronald Reagan’s budding Alzheimer’s in 1984, shamelessly stoked racial fears to elect George H.W. Bush in 1988, and waged a secret campaign on behalf of Big Tobacco to derail health care reform in 1993. 'He was the premier guy in the business,' says former Reagan campaign manager Ed Rollins. 'He was our Michelangelo.'

In recent years the 76-year-old Ailes was usually discussed in the context of Fox News, the television empire he founded and where he was largely given carte blanche by Rupert Murdoch because Fox made money hand over fist. That autonomy ended last month, when suddenly Ailes had to go.

There are many fascinating aspects to his bombshell exit from Fox. For those interested in the ongoing power struggles in the Murdoch empire, Australian journalist and long time News Corp watcher Neil Chenoweth has this blow-by-blow account of how the Murdoch sons manoeuvred to get Ailes out.

Meanwhile women the world over, especially women who work in TV, have been swapping the toe-curling stories of sexual harassment that emerged after former Fox anchor Gretchen Carlson took legal action against Ailes. One of the G-rated accounts came from Kellie Boyle, who told Fortune of her encounter with Ailes back in 1989:

He had a car and a driver. We got in the car and he said, "You know if you want to play with the big boys, you have to lay with the big boys".

But let's just concentrate on one aspect of the Ailes story; his ties to Trump. Pundits have spent much time trying to work out the extent of the Ailes involvement – past, present and future – in the flagging Trump campaign. We know there are solid links here: the two men share many common political views, have known each other for 40 years and, while there was a public spat over the Megyn Kelly episode earlier this year, Trump went into bat for Ailes over the sexual harassment claims.

Last month Ailes biographer Gabriel Sherman suggested that Ailes' fingerprints were all over the Trump campaign, telling Slate 'people who have known Ailes for decades say that when they hear a Trump speech they hear so many echoes of Ailes'. [fold]

The Trump campaign insists Ailes has no official position but there seems to be too much smoke for no fire. This Media Matters report summarises who has said what over the last week or so.

Earlier this month, New Yorker editor David Reminck wrote of the turbulent relationship between the two men, one 'roiled by the differences of large narcissisms – two immense egos competing for the same ideological berth'.

Trump's acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention was also eerily close to Nixon's from the 1968, Remnick noted:

Nixon delivered a speech intended to heighten the fears of the delegates in the arena and of the “forgotten” majority of Americans at home—“the non-shouters, the non-demonstrators,” the “decent people,” who worked and saved and paid their taxes. His speech, pitched largely to white working-class voters anxious about law and order, was meant to make them even more anxious, more resentful, more tribal; his images and phrases presaged not only the rhetoric of Roger Ailes but also the unlikely rise of Donald J. Trump.

Of course it was this campaign, in which a young Ailes organised TV specials staged as town hall meetings for Nixon, that was immortalised in The Selling of the President by Joe McGinniss. Here's a reminder of the book from a 2011 Salon piece titled 'When Roger Ailes was honest about what he did':

“Let’s face it,” Ailes told McGinniss — and his book’s strengths come from its frank dialogue and McGinniss’ deadpan tone — “a lot of people think Nixon is dull. Think he’s a bore, a pain in the ass. They look at him as the kind of kid who always carried a bookbag … Now you put him on television, you’ve got a problem right away. He’s a funny-looking guy. He looks like somebody 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.’ I mean this is how he strikes some people. That’s why these shows are important. To make them forget all that.”

Fast forward two decades on and Ailes was steering the Bush campaign. This ad from that time is a good example of his work:

With two and half months of campaigning to go, there is plenty of time for Ailes to get stuck in this time around. And after the election? Well, there is plenty of speculation about what might happen then too. 

Photo: Helayne Seidman/Getty

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