From attack ads to debate zingers, there’s no American more responsible for the look, feel and artifice of the modern political campaign than Roger Ailes. As a political consultant in the 1968 campaign, Ailes invented for Richard Nixon the “Man in the Arena” format, in which nervous amateurs hand-selected by the campaign lob softball questions at the candidate. The format thrives today. The only discernable update has been to take the artifice online — as president Obama did recently during a “town hall” meeting at Facebook headquarters.
But Ailes is also to blame for much of the emptiness of the modern campaign, for the triumph of flash over subtance, of emotion over intellect, for the — how to put this? — Sarah Palinization of American political life.
In a 1988 exchange with the reporter Judy Woodruff following the crowning campaign of his career as an above-board political operative, Ailes laid out some of his deep (and deeply cynical) thinking on the artifice that had helped land George H.W. Bush in the White House.
Roger Ailes: Let’s face it, there are three things that the media are interested in: pictures, mistakes and attacks. That’s the one sure way of getting coverage. You try to avoid as many mistakes as you can. You try to give them as many pictures as you can. And if you need coverage, you attack, and you will get coverage.
It’s my orchestra pit theory of politics. You have two guys on stage and one guy says, “I have a solution to the Middle East problem,” and the other guy falls in the orchestra pit, who do you think is going to be on the evening news.
“One thing you don’t want to do is get your head up too far on some new vision for America because then the next thing that happens is the media runs over to the Republican side and says, “Tell me why you think this is an idiotic idea.”
Judy Woodruff: So you’re saying the notion of the candidate saying, “I want to run for President because I want to do something for this country,” is crazy.
Roger Ailes: Suicide.