A teenage booze hound – "I was hammered all the time" – Ailes said he "went to state school because they told me I could drink." There was another reason: His father kicked him out of the house when he graduated from high school. During his stint at Ohio University, where he studied radio and television, his parents divorced and left the house where he had spent so much of his childhood recovering from illness and injury. "I went back, the house was sold, all my stuff was gone," he recalled. "I never found my shit!" The shock seems to have left him with an almost pathological nostalgia for the trappings of small-town America.
In college, Ailes tried to join the Air Force ROTC but was rejected because of his health. So he became a drama geek, acting in a bevy of collegiate productions. The thespian streak never left Ailes: His first job out of college was as a gofer on The Mike Douglas Show, a nationally syndicated daytime variety show that featured aging stars like Jack Benny and Pearl Bailey in a world swooning for Elvis and the Beatles. In many ways, Ailes remains a creature of that earlier era. His 1950s manners, martini-dry ripostes and unreconstructed sexism give the feeling, says one intimate, "like you’re talking to someone who’s been under a rock for a couple of decades."
Ailes found his calling in television. He proved to be a TV wunderkind, charting a meteoric rise from gofer to executive producer by the age of 25. Ailes had an uncanny feel for stagecraft and how to make conversational performances pop on live television. But it was behind the scenes at Mike Douglas in 1967 that Ailes met the man who would set him on his path as the greatest political operative of his generation: Richard Milhous Nixon. The former vice president – whose stilted and sweaty debate performance against John F. Kennedy had helped doom his presidential bid in 1960 – was on a media tour to rehabilitate his image. Waiting with Nixon in his office before the show, Ailes needled his powerful guest. "The camera doesn’t like you," he said. Nixon wasn’t pleased. "It’s a shame a man has to use gimmicks like television to get elected," he grumbled. "Television is not a gimmick," Ailes said. “And if you think it is, you’ll lose again."
The exchange was a defining moment for both men. Nixon became convinced that he had met a boy genius who could market him to the American public. Ailes had fallen hard for his first candidate. He soon abandoned his high-powered job producing Westinghouse’s biggest hit and signed on as Nixon’s "executive producer for television." For Ailes, the infatuation was personal – and it is telling that the man who got him into politics would prove to be one of he most paranoid and dirty campaigners in the history of American politics. "I don’t know anyone else around that I would have done it for," Ailes has said, "other than Nixon."
It was while working for Nixon that Ailes first experimented with blurring the distinction between journalism and politics, developing a knack for manipulating political imagery that would find its ultimate expression in Fox News. He knew his candidate was a disaster on TV. "You put him on television, you’ve got a problem right away," Ailes told reporter Joe McGinniss in The Selling of the President 1968. "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.' "But the real problem, as Ailes saw it, was a media establishment that he viewed as hostile to Republicans. The "only hope," he recalled, "was to go around the press and go directly to the people" – letting the campaign itself shape the candidate’s image for the average voter, "without it being interpreted for him by a middleman."
To bypass journalists, Ailes made Nixon the star of his own traveling roadshow – a series of contrived, newslike events that the campaign paid to broadcast in local markets across the country. Nixon would appear on camera in theaters packed with GOP partisans – "an applause machine," Ailes said, "that’s all that they are." Then he would field questions from six voters, hand-selected by the campaign, who could be counted on to lob softball queries that played to Nixon’s talking points. At the time, Nixon was consciously stoking the anger of white voters aggrieved by the advances of the civil rights movement, and Ailes proved eager to play the race card. To balance an obligatory "Negro" on a panel in Philadelphia, Ailes dreamed of adding a "good, mean Wallacite cab driver. Wouldn’t that be great? Some guy to sit there and say, 'Awright, Mac, what about these niggers?'"
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