Earlier this summer, Roger Ailes, president of the Fox News Channel, was honored by the Bradley Foundation. Ailes’s speech, delivered to a right-leaning audience at the Kennedy Center, was rollicking and well received, filled with red meat and barbed humor, and proudly pro-American. Liberals didn’t like it. And Ailes didn’t care.
None of this will come as a surprise to anyone who reads Zev Chafets’s engaging and sympathetic biography. When Roger Ailes was in second grade, he was hit by a car, his legs were badly injured—and his father took him out to a track and told him to start running. So a certain toughness was ingrained in Ailes at an early age: He is caustic, profane, and unafraid of controversy and conflict. He seems to relish it, in fact. As a kid, Ailes liked to get into fights, and he’s been fighting one way or another ever since.
According to many on the left, Roger Ailes is the personification of evil, “the pallid, smirking, ultra-rich white guy who sits atop the unrepentant lie factory that is Fox News,” in the words of the left-wing website Gawker. And yet, according to Chafets, Ailes is a far more complicated, multi-dimensional figure than most of the world—and perhaps even Ailes himself—would like to admit. He has been liked and admired by people who could easily have grievances against him, including his ex-wife (the former Marjorie White), journalists who were fired by Ailes (Jim Cramer), political consultants he has squared off against (Bob Squier), and cable news competitors (Rick Kaplan). Ailes is a good friend of Barbara Walters, and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow finds him charming and friendly. He is held in high regard by Jesse Jackson and the Kennedy family.
Douglas Kennedy, the youngest son of Robert Kennedy who was hired by Ailes at Fox, describes Ailes as an avuncular benefactor: “Roger always wants people to think he is worse than he is,” Kennedy tells Chafets. “He hates admitting that he’s softhearted.” Chafets himself says that, in his conversations with the man, Ailes usually explains his motivations and behavior in the most cynical way. But underneath the cynical veneer is a fierce personal code of ethics, at the center of which is loyalty. Ailes is loyal to others and he expects it in return. “Ours is a perfidious business,” CNN’s Chris Cuomo tells Chafets, “but Roger stands up for his people.”
“Roger thinks long and hard about hiring, but once you are in, he’s got your back,” according to Fox’s Chris Wallace, who adds: “Loyalty is very important to him.” In 2008, Wallace criticized Fox & Friends hosts, including Steve Doocy, on the air. Ailes was furious: “You shot inside the tent,” he said to Wallace, whom he called a “jerk.” Wallace sent Ailes a letter of apology, and all was forgiven.
The same can’t be said about Jim Cramer. Cramer held a secret meeting with executives at CBS while under contract with Fox, and he didn’t inform Ailes of the meeting in advance. “He fired me,” Cramer says, and “we had worked together for two years.” But, Cramer adds, “He was right to fire me. And, despite everything, I still like him. He delivered on what he promised. I just wish, in retrospect, that I had, too.”
Of course, the fact that Ailes is a colorful, abrasive figure would be of little interest to anyone save the fact that he’s been successful in every professional endeavor he’s undertaken. In politics, Ailes has been a debate coach, an ad maker, and a strategist for presidents. By his count, in the more than 140 campaigns he has orchestrated, his victories outnumber his losses by about nine to one. Chafets recounts how Ailes was the one person in Ronald Reagan’s inner circle who, before Reagan’s second debate with Walter Mondale, raised the sensitive age issue.
Ailes was also a key figure in George H. W. Bush’s victory over Michael Dukakis in 1988. He served as Bush’s “morale officer,” framing Dukakis as weak on national security and running some of the most effective advertisements in presidential campaign history, including “Revolving Door,” which attacked the Massachusetts prison furlough (without showing a photo of Willie Horton) and another that showed garbage and debris floating in Boston Harbor alongside a sign that read “Radiation Hazard: No Swimming” (thus effectively undercutting Dukakis’s claim to be an environmentalist).
“It was Roger Ailes who created the dominant issues in that campaign,” says Democratic consultant Paul Begala. “He did it by defining Dukakis. The campaign was incredibly impressive, and it was mostly because of Ailes. He has an intuitive grasp of what Bill Clinton calls walking around people.”