The publication yesterday of Zev Chafets’s biography of Fox News chief Roger Ailes has elicited from Ailes the frank commentary that is his hallmark. Though many will undoubtedly fix on Ailes’s pointed remarks, the Vanity Fair excerpt – full of such barbs — makes clear, as does Joe McGuiness’s The Selling of the President, that Ailes’s success derives from his understanding of emotion, stagecraft, and drama — and how they drive the news.
This understanding seems to come naturally to Ailes; he is revealed as somebody who feels deeply about nearly everything. There are the barbs that have gotten attention: Barack Obama is “lazy,” Newt Gingrich is “a prick,” Joe Biden is ”dumb as an ashtray.” In an interview with Howard Kurtz, he stands by his remarks. “Are every one of those statements true? Yes,” Ailes told Kurtz. “Should I have said them? Well, that’s a debate.”
Of the administration’s former green-jobs czar, Van Jones, who took umbrage at Ailes’s commentary about the president, he had this to say: “I don’t pay a lot of attention to Communist infiltrators. Van Jones has one job, to stir up racism whether he can find it or not.”
But there is also another aspect. Biographer Robert Caro memorably writes of the “light and dark threads” that he traced throughout Lyndon Johnson’s life. So it is with Ailes, in whom Chafets captures a great deal of sadness that, at 72, he is unlikely to see his son, now 13, well into adulthood. For the past nine years, he has been compiling mementos, notes and advice for him, all intended to be turned over when he is gone: among other keepsakes, an anniversary card from his wife to him, on which Ailes has written, “Your mother is a beautiful woman. Always take care of her” and a copy of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War inscribed as follows:
Avoid war if at all possible but never give up your freedom—or your honor. Always stand for what is right. If absolutely forced to fight, then fight with courage and win. Don’t try to win … win!
Ailes told Chafets, “This is advice Zac might need to hear from me in ten years and I won’t be here to give it to him. I’ve told him, if he has a problem or he feels he needs me, to go off to a quiet place and listen, and he will hear my voice.”
Conservatives, who have struggled to connect with voters emotionally, and liberals, who instinctively revile and dismiss him, would do well to look closely at the factors that have contributed to Roger Ailes’s enormous success. Though Ailes has been accused on many occasions of controlling the Republican party, it’s clear the GOP, in fact, still has a lot to learn from him. (For its part, the New York Times has written off the book as a “slapdash” portrait with “little cogent analysis.”) Chafets’s interview with Sean Hannity is above.