The Man Behind the Message
If anyone can build a better candidate, it is Roger Ailes
By Richard Stengel
(TIME, August 22, 1988) -- Primary night, California. June 7, 1988. George Bush eases into a hotel armchair for an interview with Tom Brokaw. Suddenly a burly, bearded figure bounds across the room and, without a word, yanks an errant hair from the vice- presidential eyebrow. "That hurt," winces Bush as a grinning Roger Ailes leaves the room, satisfied that he has put his finishing touch on the scene.
From early 1986, when George Bush set out on his long trek toward the Oval Office, Roger Ailes has been struggling to make more than just cosmetic changes in the Vice President. Ailes, 48, is the legendary dark prince of political advertising, the Republican consultant who helped engineer Richard Nixon's resurrection in 1968 and who scripted Ronald Reagan's second-debate comeback against Walter Mondale in 1984. This time Ailes has been the unseen hand behind Bush's best moments: the "Pierre" put-down of former Delaware Governor Pete du Pont in a debate last October, the hard-hitting anti-Dole advertising in February's New Hampshire primary, and the on-air pummeling of CBS's Dan Rather last January.
But the fall campaign presents Ailes with his most formidable challenge. The Vice President has been trailing Michael Dukakis by double digits in polls, and his negative ratings with voters have approached Jesse Jackson's. Moreover, Bush fights some of Ailes' attempts to improve his public presence. Ailes wants Bush to rehearse more and stick to his carefully prepared texts; Bush waves away much of this as inconsequential. Even when Bush does follow the Ailes regimen, he often seems to be his own worst enemy. He frequently comes across as a good-natured Mr. Maladroit, garbling his syntax, muddling his ideas and tripping over his applause lines.
Ailes' involvement has been crucial to Bush's candidacy. When Bush arrived in New Hampshire reeling from a third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, Ailes labored all night over the television ad that quashed Robert Dole's insurgent campaign. Known as the "Senator Straddle" commercial, the blunt spot asserted that Dole had waffled on tax hikes, oil-import fees and arms control.
Ailes also prepped Bush for the Showdown at Black Rock. Foreseeing that the CBS Evening News interview would be an ambush, Ailes provided Bush with a riposte to an aggressive Dan Rather: "It's not fair to judge my whole career by a rehash on Iran. How would you like it if I judged your career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set in New York?" The tactic illustrates an Ailes axiom: when attacked, hit back so hard your opponent rues the day he got nasty.
Ailes comes across as the Ernest Hemingway of consultants. Swaggering and corpulent (5 ft. 10 in. and 243 lbs.), with a white goatee, he plays the woolly renegade to what he calls "the coat-and-tie boys" who surround Bush. He is gargantuan in his appetites -- for food, amusement, combat and attention. In a fight with two leather-jacket types in a Houston hotel lobby in 1984, he broke one man's wrist and tossed the other man into the lobby fountain. Just last week, annoyed that no one had repaired a bowed table in Bush campaign offices, Ailes walked into a roomful of aides, grabbed the conference table and flipped it over. He nurtures his pugnacious image as carefully. "If people know you'll go to any lengths for your client, they're less likely to play games with you," he says.
The son of a foreman at the Packard Electric plant in Warren, Ohio, Ailes began his career as a gofer on a Cleveland TV station that had started a talk program, The Mike Douglas Show. Five years later, at 26, he was the executive producer. In 1967 Presidential Candidate Richard Nixon appeared on the show, remarking to Ailes, "It's a shame a man has to use gimmicks like this to get elected." Ailes shot back, "Television is not a gimmick, and if you think it is, you'll lose again." The candidate warmed to Ailes, and Ailes warmed up the candidate. As a Nixon media adviser, Ailes created the carefully orchestrated "man in the arena" TV appearances, in which a relaxed Nixon took questions from a citizens' panel before a well-coached studio audience.
Ailes has overlapping but distinct roles in the Bush campaign. He is responsible for paid television advertising, and will have at least $40 million to spend. He is Bush's personal performance coach, advising him on everything from what shirts to wear to how to slow down his distractingly rapid eye movements. Finally, Ailes is in charge of debate preparation.
Ailes works best when he is on the offensive. "He has two speeds," says Bush Campaign Manager Lee Atwater. "Attack and destroy." "It's going to be a rough-and-tumble campaign," Ailes says gleefully. Then, referring to the murderer who was furloughed by the Dukakis administration and later arrested for a rape and a stabbing, Ailes says, "The only question is whether we depict Willie Horton with a knife in his hand or without it."
Although Ailes may be adept at going for the jugular, he is also taking aim at the heart. He is planning a series of ads depicting Bush as a gentle grandfather and a no-frills businessman, attempting to move Bush away from his image as a white-shoe elitist. Unlike some media consultants, Ailes has no signature TV style. "Some people have a formula," says Democratic Consultant Robert Squier. "Ailes produces a spot to fit the situation."
Yet Bush's live performances cannot be doctored. The candidate's recent foreign policy address in Chicago was well written and thoughtful. But he bollixed his best lines, and the cameras dwelt on snoozing audience members. Bush seems to suffer from a kind of oral dyslexia. One example from Kennebunkport, Me., last week: "We can't entrust the peace and national security of the United States to something as unexperienced as the Governor of Massachusetts."
Bush's problem goes deeper than diction. Privately, some aides are worried that he lacks the single-minded obsessiveness that seems necessary to win the presidency. They fear that Bush is perhaps too nice or a bit lazy. "I know there are limits to what a coach can accomplish in improving speechmaking," says Ailes frankly, "unless the subject is a diligent student of himself. Dukakis is totally self-absorbed in that regard. He's spent hours reinventing himself in front of a television camera. Bush says, 'That's all bull. I am what I am.' He's not a narcissistic person, and he refuses to become one."
In contrast to Marshall McLuhan, who maintained that "the medium is the message," Ailes' credo is, "You are the message." George Bush is living proof of that dictum, and that is Roger Ailes' greatest challenge.
Reported by David Beckwith/Washington
Copyright © 1997 AllPolitics All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this information is provided to you.