A few years ago, Zev Chafets wrote a book about Rush Limbaugh. Now he has written a book about Roger Ailes. He seems to be making a specialty of larger-than-life conservative figures. For some on the left, he says, Limbaugh and Ailes are the “two Great Satans.” For others, of course, they are more like folk heroes.
Actually, Chafets is a writer without specialty. He has written a range of books, including novels. Among his topics are Detroit, Israel, baseball, and the Mob. He has a love of American culture, and he handles racial topics especially well, I would say. In any event, he has an eye for an interesting story and an interesting person.
As for his politics, they appear to be centrist — maybe even moderately conservative. I suspect he is a birth Democrat whom the flow of events has dragged right. He speaks of the “liberalism” of CBS News as though he were stating a simple fact — as though he were saying that Topeka is the capital of Kansas. Which it is.
In writing his latest book, he had the cooperation of Ailes, he tells us, but not his authorization. The book is “not a formal biography,” Chafets says; it’s “a record of almost a year spent watching Roger Ailes in action.” That it is, but it also serves as a biography, whatever we call it.
Ailes is president of Fox News, and a king of media. But he’s also, says Chafets, a “blue-collar guy from a factory town in Ohio who has stayed close to his roots.” At their first meeting, Chafets found his subject “plainspoken, wryly profane, caustic, and anxious for me to know that he doesn’t give a good goddamn about fancy parties, political correctness,” and so on.
His previous subject, Limbaugh, and his current subject have a lot in common, as Chafets writes. They grew up in similar places with similar values, and came to similar conclusions. They both have buccaneering, joyful personalities. Neither shies from a fight. The author quotes Limbaugh as saying, “Ideologically and culturally, we are two peas in a pod.”
The town in Ohio Ailes is from is Warren, in the northeast, near Youngstown. He was born there in 1940. His family, like other families, experienced much drama: war, divorce, loss of social station. This makes for fascinating reading. The chapter on Warren is worth the price of admission all by itself.
Roger was afflicted with hemophilia, in and out of hospitals, but he was hardly stopped. He charged at life. His brother, a doctor, says, “It’s very well known in the medical literature that hemophiliacs tend to be daredevils, the kind of guys who wind up jumping over canyons on motorcycles. Roger fit that bill.” His mother saw to it that he had some of the graces: piano, elocution, and ballet.
After graduating from Ohio University, Ailes went into television. Before he was an éminence grise, he was a wunderkind. “Roger Ailes was a legend at a very young age,” says Marvin Kalb, the veteran newsman. Ailes went to work on The Mike Douglas Show. “It was the best hire I’ve ever made,” says the producer who hired him, Woody Fraser. Other employers have had reason to feel the same.
Everyone and his brother appeared on The Mike Douglas Show, from a variety of fields. Showbiz types, yes, but also Martin Luther King Jr. “He came on three or four times,” Ailes says. “He’d sit in my office waiting to go on and we’d smoke cigarettes and chat about personal things or what was happening politically. I really don’t remember anything specific. I wish I could.” Not a few reminiscers would make something up.
One day, Nixon came on. This was during his “wilderness years,” when he was out of office but trying to come back. (You could never rule him out, till you could.) Also booked that day on Douglas was an exotic dancer with a boa constrictor. Says Ailes, “I figured I better not put her and Nixon in the same greenroom. I didn’t want to scare him, or the snake.”
Ailes went on to do some work for Nixon, and for Reagan, and for Bush 41, and for many another politician. He was a consultant greatly in demand. I thought I had heard every Reagan story worth hearing, but I learned another one from Ailes, through Chafets. I like this one because it illustrates a point too seldom made: Reagan was not putty in his wife’s hands, at least not always. He could speak sharply to her.