Roger Ailes was an underdog. That’s how he viewed himself, from his difficult childhood through astonishing success and finally to his Palm Beach exile.
Born with hemophilia, he knew early that any episodes of bleeding could kill him. That, coupled with an abusive father and blue-collar poverty in Warren, Ohio, helped create the complicated, larger than life survivor figure who combatively viewed the world as “us versus them” and “real people” against the “elites.”
From 1981–1987, I worked for Roger at Ailes Communications in New York City. Our bread and butter was political campaign media: TV ads, debate prep and media coaching for Republican candidates throughout the country. On the off-season, we made documentaries and TV shows—everything from pilots for Paramount to the “Weight Watchers Magazine” show for cable. All the while, Roger managed and booked lounge singers and musically-suspect bands. It was like he was still juggling segments for “The Mike Douglas Show,” where he got his start in television some 15 years earlier.
The politicians we worked for had never seen anything him. Nobody dared to talk to them like Ailes—part Don Rickles, part psychiatrist, and part motivational football coach. In meetings, commercial shoots, and debate prep sessions, Roger would profanely insult the performance and physical appearance of his clients, just to get things rolling: “Even your wife would change the channel, the audience would be bored to tears—and by the way, your fly is down…” (only said far more colorfully and explicitly).
Roger’s jaundiced-but-accurate view of his clients’ challenges may have been best captured in The Selling of the President 1968, Joe McGinniss’ classic look at the remaking of Richard Nixon, in which Roger, then a Nixon media adviser, featured prominently. Long before comic impersonators of Nixon arrived at the same image, Ailes had figured out his client: “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.’”
Not every politician took well to the Ailes style. His meetings with New York Senator Al D’Amato, a client, had all the theatrical belligerence of WrestleMania, with shockingly dirty insults flying between the two, culminating in Roger threatening to throw the senator out of the 30th-floor window. His relations with lunar astronaut-turned-U.S. Senator Jack Schmitt were so tenuous that when a camera broke during an ad shoot in the New Mexico desert, Ailes never told his client—he feared that Schmitt would get upset and that this would affect his on-screen performance—and pretended to continue filming for two hours while a new camera was rushed from Albuquerque.
But most came around, one way or the other. When one incumbent Republican senator refused to approve attack ads against his opponent, Ailes had me prepare a brutal spot attacking our own client, showing him what the other side was preparing to do to him over his record of drunk driving. After seeing his future, the shaken senator quietly approved our ads and won a narrow reelection.
In 1984, one of our clients was a young senate candidate named Mitch McConnell. At the time, he was being whupped—one poll that August showed him trailing the Democratic incumbent by 44 points. Ailes took the bleak polling summary home, saw a dog food commercial on TV, and came into the office the next morning with an idea: “What about a bunch of funny-looking tracker dogs looking for [incumbent Senator] Dee Huddleston, who’s been skipping votes to make speeches for money?” Twenty drafts of the script later—and after a 16-hour shoot with four powerful and maniacally amorous dogs—the famous “Bloodhounds” commercials were born, helping the determined 42-year-old McConnell win one of the greatest upset victories in American political history.
Roger hated to lose at anything, whether it was politics, office ping-pong or television awards. At the 1985 News and Documentary Emmy Awards, Ailes loudly slammed his fist into the table the moment our nominated entry, “Television and the Presidency,” failed to win one category, losing out to a nature documentary. “I can’t believe we lost to a fucking dolphin movie,” Ailes bellowed, even though we had already won the Emmy for best writing.
Only a few people are able to achieve great success in their one chosen field. Roger achieved success in four: political media, television news and opinion, corporate consulting, and even the entertainment industry (he produced a few off-Broadway shows). He had wide-ranging interests, and up until last year, succeeded in virtually all of them. (As a note, I spent 12 hours a day with Roger, five and a half days a week for six years, and never saw anything like the behavior he was accused of at Fox last year.)
If you want to understand his genius—to know how he reached such peaks in so many different areas—look to the days before his time at Fox News, before CNBC, before his work for Bush or Reagan or even Nixon. Look at the low-rent, middlebrow, highly rated “Mike Douglas Show,” which Ailes produced in the mid-to-late 1960s. Every episode required Ailes to make hundreds of creative decisions: What songs should the hosts sing? Should the belly dancer and her snake appear before or after Richard Nixon? What would would get the biggest response from viewers? And, most importantly for Roger, what would grab the biggest ratings?
He was programming to middle America, the people who might later be called the “Silent Majority” or “Reagan Democrats.” Ailes understood these people. He came from them. It was a seamless progression to know what political messages would work with these audiences on behalf of candidates, and later at the Fox News Channel.
In the end, Ailes had conquered the worlds of politics and television, but he still viewed himself as that fighting underdog from Warren, Ohio.
He saw the world as an us-versus-them battle. Whether you loved him or hated him, he forced you to see him in those terms, too. It’s a fitting irony, then, that the imprint he leaves on American politics and media isn’t confined to “us” or “them”; he redefined both fields for all of us.
For better or worse, the underdog won.