How Roger Ailes Became the Trump Whisperer
Having supplied similar counsel to Nixon, Reagan, and Bush Sr., the disgraced ex-Fox News chairman is aiding Donald Trump in his Hillary Clinton debate prep.
In a presidential campaign that has defied every reasonable prediction and flouted every tradition of American politics, finally here’s a story that surprises hardly anyone.
If it’s true that ousted Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes has been advising Donald Trump in recent days on debate preparation and other strategic issues—an arrangement reported Tuesday by The New York Times and hurriedly denied by Trump campaign press secretary Hope Hicks (although my money’s on the Times, and CNN confirmed the scoop)—that would represent a win-win for both the troubled Republican nominee and the fallen media executive.
“They got Roger Stone and now they got Roger Ailes,” Hillary Clinton loyalist James Carville told The Daily Beast, not bothering to suppress a giggle over the rogue’s gallery of misfits that seems to be populating the Trump campaign. “I’m waiting for Dick Morris. That would round out the trifecta, wouldn’t it?”
Stone, a former business partner of Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, is a certified eccentric who embraces outlandish conspiracy theories and has the face of Richard Nixon tattooed across his back.
Morris, these days an ardent Clinton enemy, had been a trusted political adviser to Bill and Hillary until the summer of 1996, during the president’s re-election campaign, when Morris was caught by a supermarket tabloid sucking the toes of a prostitute in Washington’s Jefferson Hotel.
Ailes, for his part, was a legendary Republican media strategist throughout the late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, creating the so-called New Nixon before he created Fox News.
As chronicled in The Selling of The President, the late Joe McGinnis’s classic about 1968 campaign, Ailes cast Nixon in a series of scripted town halls, labeled “Man in the Arena,” in which audience members were given planted questions for which Nixon was prepared; it helped transform the image of the former vice president from embittered loser to scrappy visionary.
After that victory, Ailes enhanced his reputation with effective political commercials and debate prep for the likes of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush among other GOP office-holders.
“I think Roger’s probably one of the three best political operatives of the modern era,” Carville said, ranking Ailes with James Baker (who helped steer Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush to their presidencies and served in the administrations of both), and David Axelrod (who guided Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign and toiled in the Obama White House).
“Whatever my ideological differences with him, or his current tribulations, he’s a really skilled guy,” Carville said about Ailes. “There’s no denying that.”
Trump, suffering from an endless series of self-inflicted wounds, is lagging badly behind Clinton in recent polls. And the 76-year-old Ailes—who was forced to resign from the conservative-leaning cable channel he founded, amid a sensational lawsuit that launched an avalanche of workplace sexual harassment allegations—is clearly not ready for exile, but instead looking for legitimacy and relevance.
Indeed, six days after top 21st Century Fox execs James and Lachlan Murdoch sent him packing (albeit with a reported $40 million golden parachute), Ailes showed up for lunch with his long-suffering wife Beth at New York’s celebrity/media watering hole, Michael’s Restaurant, and sat at his customary table, No. 4, front and center for all to see.
Ailes’s presence was awkward for nearly everyone else in the dining room, few of whom could bring themselves to greet the disgraced impresario, including, according to one account, former Ailes defender and Fox News personality Jeanine Pirro.
This was, in essence, Ailes’s public display of cheekiness, a smiling “fuck you” to the Manhattan liberal-elite whom he has long suspected, with some justice, of dissing him behind his back.
If an orange-haired reality-show billionaire is the instrument of Ailes’s resurrection, so be it—never mind that as recently as five months ago, he authorized Fox News’s media relations department to excoriate Trump for his “vitriolic attacks against Megyn Kelly and his extreme, sick obsession with her” as “beneath the dignity of a presidential candidate who wants to occupy the highest office in the land.”
If Ailes is now helping Fox News’s occasional nemesis, Carville, for one, sees a method to this madness.
“Maybe Roger Ailes still thinks Trump is sick, but he likes the fact that all the people Roger Ailes hates, hate Trump,” he said. “And I think they had a mutually beneficial relationship for a long time, because Trump was a ratings machine and they’re both part of that metropolitan New York Celebrity-slash-Resentment Complex. Roger and Rudy Guiliani and Trump—they resent everybody. They’re fueled by anger and resentment of anything that’s not like them.
“And then you have secondary characters like Carl Paladino and Bo Dietl. It’s too funny.”
Ailes, who from 1996 onward worked assiduously, if unconvincingly, to rebrand himself as a “fair and balanced” news executive—and betrayed irritation (and sometimes threatened litigation) whenever reporters cited his partisan past as evidence of current motives—could certainly help Trump a lot.
When I first met him while covering the 1988 campaign for The Washington Post, he was Vice President Bush’s chief media strategist, but had already amassed a successful record as not only an admaker but as a debate coach.
Ailes understands, better than most, that debates usually are won or lost not in the sometimes tedious back and forth, but in a single dramatic moment.
Most memorably, right before the Iowa caucuses, he prepped the elder Bush for an epic confrontation on live network television with Dan Rather, who’d decided to devote most of his CBS Evening News broadcast to a scorching interrogation of the vice president concerning his involvement in the Iran contra scandal.
The Reagan administration secretly sold weapons to the mullahs in exchange for the release of American hostages—a violation of U.S. policy—and illegally diverted the proceeds to anti-Sandinista fighters in Nicaragua.
“This is a political assassination about to happen,” Ailes warned Bush as the Rather broadcast approached, and then supplied his client with the killer line.
“It’s not fair to judge my whole career by a rehash on Iran,” Bush scolded Rather at the climactic moment. “How would you like it if I judged your career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set in New York? Would like that?”
It was a reference to an incident weeks earlier in which Rather, annoyed by an overtime tennis match that delayed the start of his program, stormed out of the studio and left an eternity of dead air on CBS before he returned.
“It was one of the great moments in television,” Ailes gloated at the time. “If you freeze-frame it when he asked Dan Rather that question, and watch his eyes, he had long eye blinks and his head went down just like a fighter who had taken a hard punch. He took a right cross to the jaw that no anchorman in the history of television has ever taken.”
Rather didn’t respond Tuesday to a request for comment.
In another example of Ailes’s debate-prep savvy, he bounded onto the stage 30 seconds before his client in 1970, Ohio Senate candidate Robert Taft Jr., was about to confront Gov. James Rhodes in a televised face-off.
He handed Taft a folded piece of paper, stage-whispering, “Don’t use this unless you need it”—prompting in Rhodes a look of nervous concern as Taft unfolded the note, read it and chuckled.
Rhodes was so freaked out that he lost the debate.
Ailes’s note said: “KILL!”
Fourteen years later, Ailes coached President Reagan—who was trying to rebound from an earlier befuddled debate performance against Democrat Walter Mondale—to take the age issue head-on.
“What are you going to do when they say you’re too old for the job?” Ailes asked the 73-year-old president.
Ailes worked to restore Reagan’s shattered confidence, and the president came through with the coup de grâce that ended the 56-year-old former vice president’s chances for the White House: “I want you to know I will not make age an issue of this campaign,” Reagan vowed. “I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
Knowing he was done for, even Mondale had to laugh.
Maybe Ailes can work the same magic to help Trump, who has little choice but to face the more articulate, better briefed Clinton in three grueling debates between September and October. Perhaps Ailes, as they practice his lines, can provide Trump with a moment of victory.
“But you know,” Carville said, mentioning a long-departed friend of both Trump and Ailes, “that the ghost of Roy Cohn is going to be in that room.”