Roger Ailes died a little over two years ago, in May of 2017. Ten months earlier, in July of 2016, he was forced out as head of Fox News, amid several accusations of sexual harassment, some dating back to the 1960’s, when he was producing The Mike Douglas Show.
In the recently concluded Showtime limited series, The Loudest Voice, shows how he built the network up from nothing. An empty storefront into the most watched cable news network, even three years after he was let go. What wasn’t covered was how it all started.
In the ever continuing series “It all goes back to Nixon,” here’s the latest chapter.
In 1967, Nixon was still in political limbo. He had lost the presidency in 1960 and the California Governor’s race in ’62, emoting the famous “you won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore” line. He campaigned, nominally, for Goldwater in ’64 and other Republicans in 1966.
His return from exile began not in front of the TV, where Nixon, even on his best days looked worse than Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend (“I was born with five o’clock shadow,” he once mused), but behind it.
Mike Douglas was a 1950’s crooner in the style of Andy Williams and Perry Como. In 1961, he was hired to start a daily talk show in Cleveland. After two years locally, the show was syndicated by Westinghouse Television, relocated to Philadelphia and eventually went nationwide by 1965. Its producer from ‘65–68 was Roger Ailes.
In 1967, Ailes was 27, five years removed from Ohio University in Athens. He was the wunderkind of television, as TMDS had gained an audience that made it the number one daytime talk show for most of its run. There was even talk of taking on Johnny Carson, but you just didn’t do that.
Nixon was, by the time he appeared on the show, plotting his political comeback. He saw cracks in Lyndon Johnson’s support as the Vietnam War continued to escalate. The Great Society programs weren’t getting much help in Congress and the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act had made for the perfect storm for the perfect candidate.
Nixon and Ailes were brothers from another mother. Both were paranoid, resentful and fearful of a changing America. So, in the ‘Green Room,’ before his appearance, a rueful Nixon told Ailes “it’s too bad that politicians have to use this contraption to win elections.” To which Ailes replied, “if you don’t accept television and use it to your advantage, you’ll never win.”
Nixon was many things, but he wasn’t stupid. He was an opportunist of the first order who won his first Senate race by passing out pink flyers painting his opponent Helen Gahagan Douglas, as a communist sympathizer. So, in 1968, he hired Ailes as his “television producer.”
Ailes told Old Tanned, Rested and Ready not to debate Humphrey. He didn’t, unlike 1960, instead producing a series of scripted, ‘audience participation’ programs where an audience of ‘average Americans’ asked questions of the candidate. He spoke to ‘the silent majority,’ (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?) and played on the resentment and fear of everything from nuclear war to the cost of living to win. Most memorably, he is remembered for his appearance on the irreverent Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, where he tried to look, well, cool.
Following Ailes playbook, he won, barely. He garnered 301 electoral votes to Humphrey’s 191, but had third party candidate George Wallace won a few more states, he would have thrown the race to the House of Representatives, where, after the first ballot, it’s one man, one vote.
Had Nixon lost, Ailes more than likely would have gone back to producing more daytime television. Instead, he became a power player, especially from 1980 onward. He was a consultant to Reagan and in 1984, produced the “Morning in America” ad that propelled Ronnie to the largest electoral landslide in history.
There had been talk of a ‘conservative’ network as far back as 1970, but there just wasn’t the infrastructure nor money to pull it off. Paramount, flush with money from the syndication of Star Trek, was planning to start a fourth network in the late 1970’s, right when cable television was in its infancy. Never happened.
Instead, it took an Australian expatriate, scandal sheet propagator Rupert Murdoch, to start FOX, mostly on UHF channels, in 1987. It was irreverent (The Tracey Ullman Show, which begat The Simpsons), sensationalistic (America’s Most Wanted) and crass, giving us Al Bundy and family in Married With Children (the working title was ‘We’re Not The Cosby’s’ a dig at the number one show at the time).
Were it not for purchasing the rights to the National Football League’s NFC package beginning in 1994, FOX might not have been around much longer. Instead, Murdoch wanted to start a news channel to compete with CNN. He convinced Ailes, who had been working for America’s Talking, the predecessor to MSNBC, to leave and start a new venture from scratch. The rest, as they say is history.
In crafting a network in his own image, Ailes created a monolith of a network that vilified liberals, immigrants, the poor, disabled, blacks, gays and anyone who didn’t believe in God, the flag and hate Barack Hussein Obama. And Bill and Hillary Clinton. You can throw in Al Gore, John Kerry and Nancy Pelosi for good measure as well.
It was all a well-crafted facade. Ailes, who was a hemophiliac, was also an abusive manipulator and a voracious sex fiend who used his power and money to control everything. During his time at the network, he kept a woman in a luxurious apartment for his sexual needs. He’s not the first rich and powerful man to do this, history is replete with them, including the current occupant* residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
He also harassed women at Fox News. That it took Gretchen Carlson, a former Miss America, to sue him to bring him down and start the snowball that would take down other well-known men (and a few women as well) is perhaps a watershed moment.
But Ailes had already poisoned the populace for nearly 50 years. That FNC still rates and resonates with viewers even after his departure is proof that his influence is still strong. But there might be a break in the fever. In the wake of recent events, Chris Wallace and others have spoken out against the president* and his policies and he has called Fox ‘unfair.’ Oh, poor you.
In the past year, Murdoch has sold the entertainment and Fox Sports Regional channels to ABC and Sinclair, respectively. Sinclair is even more extreme than even Fox News and I don’t see them being a good bet to keep the FS-R’s for too long. Not sure what Disney/ABC plans to do, but I don’t see Bart and Homer around too much longer.
Ailes was an outsized person and personality. In the end, he was just a bully — and a perverted one at that. Had it not been for the Trickster, Ailes would have been just another producer. Had it not been for Murdoch, he might have lived out his life with $30+ million of General Electric’s money in upstate New York or Palm Beach. Instead, we have to deal with what he has spewed since 1968.
We have always been a country divided. Roger Ailes legacy lies in widening that division.