AN AMERICAN PRESIDENTIAL RACE causes something like a chemical overload in Rupert Murdoch, who has met every president since Harry Truman. Murdoch is an obsessed, passionate, and sometimes tortured fan of the process. On election night in 2004, while following the early see-saw Bush-Kerry returns, he got so drunk that he forgot to order a key stock repurchase in Australia of his own company’s shares. This allowed his media mogul rival, John Malone, to sweep in and claim a big piece of News Corp.’s voting stock—costing Murdoch billions to buy back later.
This year, creating tremors and puzzlement in conservative circles, and giving him a direct line to the political chattering classes, Murdoch’s agitation is erupting on Twitter. His tweets have questioned Mitt Romney’s prospects and prowess, urging him, for instance, to drop “old friends from team” and hire “some real pros,” and they have possibly helped to goad Paul Ryan onto the ticket.
The tweeting may be new, but the opinions aren’t. During the 2008 campaign, when I spent several hours each week interviewing Murdoch for the biography I was writing about him and was privy to his constant campaign replays, Romney never earned more from the often non-verbal Murdoch than a snort, guffaw, or grimace. Murdoch, whose core political values are more visceral than ideological, marveled at the contrast between the stolid father—George Romney, running a come-from-behind automobile company—and what he reckoned to be the hopelessly superficial son in the private-equity business. (Murdoch’s oldest daughter, Prudence, was once, briefly and unhappily, married to a private-equity type whom he didn’t like at all.)
Romney, he continues to tell people who find their way into his political conversations (or monologues) this year, can’t be trusted. Romney is “unprincipled”—one of Murdoch’s bad words—by which he usually means too camera-ready, too media-attuned, and too market-focused. And the larger point: He is just plain grumpy about the uninspired Republican nominee, with the implicit threat that, if unappeased, he is capable of throwing a wrench into the works.
FOR ALL MURDOCH’S cynical use and manipulation of the political system—for 60 years, he has worked assiduously to get politicians to do his bidding in Australia, Britain, and the United States—what he is most drawn to in a political figure is sincerity and artlessness, or at least the appearance of it. Margaret Thatcher was for Murdoch not just the standard bearer of free-market capitalism, but the apotheosis of what-you-see-is-what-you-get. At the same time, he was impatient and sometimes dismissive of her ideological companion in the White House, seeing Ronald Reagan as somehow less serious and principled, an actor after all. (One participant at a White House meeting in 1987, which included Murdoch and several exceedingly deferential publishers, remembered Murdoch showing distinct impatience with the president.)
Murdoch has an almost aesthetic appreciation of personal strength and inner rectitude (if you wear a sharp suit, you don’t have it)—as well as an antenna for political phoniness. This may well come from enduring all the politicians who regularly suck up to him. But it is also the newsman’s conceit of having seen too much to be fooled by a politician’s public face.
In my conversations with Murdoch, he noted again and again what he saw as the incredulous proposition of someone getting elected in Massachusetts and then trying to win the support of the country’s Christian right. “You’d have to turn yourself inside out,” he said. There are, too, his instinctive aversions. “Slick” is another of his very bad words. He dislikes Romney’s smile. He mutters about Romney’s hair.
Mistrust is Murdoch’s reflexive response. For this thoroughgoing Presbyterian with an instinctive resistance to any deviations from the norm (one of the reasons he is such a good tabloid publisher), “the Mormon thing is not just too exotic for him—it doesn’t read,” says someone in his circle of political conversations. And, indeed, Murdoch’s tweets seem to come close to linking Scientology and Mormonism: In one, he called Scientology a “very weird cult,” and then, not long afterward, tweeted, “Mormonism a mystery to me,” while acknowledging, “Mormons certainly not evil.”
Romney the financier doesn’t sit well, either. There are few people Murdoch knows as well as financiers. And while he understands their usefulness, he sees them as mere middlemen. In Murdoch’s view, financiers like Romney don’t build businesses; men like Murdoch build businesses.
The style he likes most of all in a politician is a lack of obvious style, a dearth of charm and salesmanship. (He seeks his own character, in other words.) In Britain, he’s had a particular aversion to David Cameron, regarding the former p.r. executive as soft, slick, and untrustworthy. It was on the insistence of his son, James, that he supported Cameron over Labor’s Gordon Brown, who, while significantly more liberal than Murdoch, had the staunch, Scottish, no-frills, bad-suit mien with which Murdoch is comfortable. Murdoch now personally blames Cameron for much of what he considers the lack of political support he, his family, and his company have received from the Tory government in News Corp.’s ongoing hacking scandal.
On the other hand, Murdoch makes exceptions. If, in his version of idealism, he seeks a candidate without veneer or pretense, he also sees politics as a tricky business of dominance and submission.
The suppliant model here is Tony Blair. After more then a decade of supporting Thatcher and the Conservatives, by the mid-’90s, Murdoch felt rebuffed and, worse, condescended to by Thatcher’s successor, John Major. While Murdoch was suspicious of Blair’s youth, passable sartorial sense, and almost everything about the Labor Party itself, his mood changed when Blair, the then-Labor leader, made a mountain-to-Mohammad trip in 1995 to meet with Murdoch and to speak to a News Corp. gathering at Hayman Island in Australia.
It was tough going for Blair. His reception involved a kind of hazing by Murdoch and his henchmen, vividly chronicled in the diaries of Alastair Campbell, Blair’s communications chief. But having submitted to this manhandling, Blair received not only Murdoch’s support and the support of his election-moving papers in Britain, but, it would transpire, something of a life-long alliance, even a friendship.
Murdoch is a backroom guy and he likes someone with whom he can deal. He needs an inside track. But he is also seducible. He can be courted and flattered into submission. (When I interviewed Blair about Murdoch, Blair was openly tactical in describing the advantageous ways to talk to Murdoch—not least of all, listening to him before telling him something.)
Murdoch had the opposite reaction in 2008 when Barack Obama, who was angry at Fox’s coverage of the campaign, declined to reach out to him. The snub made Murdoch desperate. He sensed a major culture change coming from which he might be excluded. Key Murdoch staffers had to pull out all the stops to finally arrange a meeting. This included an urgent exchange between Murdoch’s close aide Gary Ginsberg and Ginsberg’s friend Caroline Kennedy as she sat in a car next to Obama. When the meeting did happen, Murdoch brought Fox chief Roger Ailes along as something of a sacrificial offering, encouraging Obama to give Ailes a personal tongue lashing.
Part of the point of Murdoch’s public criticisms of Romney has been to send a signal that the candidate better focus on his constituency of one. And, indeed, according to a Murdoch intimate, at the end of July, Romney sat down with Murdoch in New York for a private come-to-Jesus chat—with Ryan on the agenda.
IF MURDOCH’S visceral sympathies and antipathies can be altered by a candidate’s strategic sucking up, they can also, often, be swayed by the last person with whom he spoke. A curious thing about Murdoch is that, while irascible and opinionated, he is also conflict averse—especially if you have the standing and the passion to oppose him.
For an opinionated, stubborn old mule, Murdoch is easily swayed by heated arguments and by none more so than those of his own family.
When he was married to his second wife, Anna, the mother of three of his four adult children and a doctrinaire conservative Catholic, Murdoch went out of his way to support her views. He complemented his fiscal conservatism with a full range of family-values and anti-abortion sentiments, and once upbraided one of his most trusted editors in Australia for allowing some mild criticism of the Pope into the paper. (His sudden Twitter enthusiasm early this year for Rick Santorum seemed to be a throwback to his Anna period.)
Under the influence of his third wife, Wendi Deng, and his more-or-less liberal adult children, he has relented on most of those social positions (not, apparently, seeing his own flip-flops as in any way comparable to Romney’s flip-flops). Indeed, the man who would only socialize—when he socialized at all—with a circle of rabid free-market Reaganite billionaires, now, thanks to Wendi, has a dance card full of Hollywood and Silicon Valley liberals. David Geffen, the openly gay Hollywood film and music producer, has become one of his closest confidants.
It is his children, though, who are the most determined lobby group in his life. Elisabeth, Lachlan, and James are Manhattan-raised, elite-educated (Vassar, Princeton, Harvard), socially and environmentally correct limousine liberals, who, both behind his back and, as often as not, in front of him, gently mock or heatedly dispute his retrograde views. (Prudence, who grew up in London and who now lives in Australia, tweaks him in private even more mercilessly.) Their message is always clear: They are modern; he’s a troglodyte.
They form a powerful block against his right-wing impulses, the embodiment of which they see as Fox News head Roger Ailes, who, complicating matters, also has Murdoch’s ear. Murdoch admires Ailes and is afraid of Ailes. (When he says Ailes is “crazy,” he means this with both admiration and fear.) And Murdoch needs Ailes: Ailes is his big money-maker. Ailes is also the person who can most adroitly persuade him—or shame him—into returning to his most steadfast right-wing positions.
Murdoch’s flirtation with Obama in 2008 became a tug of war between Ailes and his children, a struggle that contributed to the New York Post’s early endorsement of John McCain, which Murdoch came to rue. But now Ailes himself is dubious about Romney’s conservative bona fides. Ailes’s disdain is nicely feeding Murdoch’s, which in turn feeds The Wall Street Journal editorial page’s ambivalence, if not dyspepsia, toward the GOP nominee. (You don’t need Twitter in any of Murdoch’s newsrooms to know his views. He’s constantly muttering them under his breath or offering them over the phone in the form of growled suggestions, understood by all to be orders.)
Indeed, it is no accident that Murdoch’s outlets have been so fixated on Romney’s vice presidential choice, pushing hard for Romney to select Ryan (an “almost perfect choice,” Murdoch tweeted after the announcement). Ryan ought to be understood not just as the candidate that represents the Murdoch-Ailes–Wall Street Journal economic line, but as their opportunity to highlight Romney’s lack of standing and character. The stark contrast between the up-from-under partisan and the upper-class deal-maker is their point. In a sense, Ryan is their private joke on Romney.
Murdoch is in transit from his hard-core right-wing period. If he is stoutly pro-business (anti-regulation, anti-tax, anti-deficit), he is also pro-immigration, pro-gun control, pro-choice, actively focused on ways to improve the educational system, and tolerant, if not libertarian, on most social issues. In some sense, he is the kind of Republican Mitt Romney would be if Mitt Romney believed he could get elected as the real Mitt Romney—that is, Murdoch would mutter, if there is a real Mitt Romney.
And that’s the rub for Murdoch. This is what he means when he tells people, in perhaps the most negative characterization he can make, that “Romney is not a fighter.” This is not an ideological point. In the Murdoch lexicon, “fighter” means character—and clarity. Murdoch is a tabloid publisher and he likes a bold, in-your-face, disruptive statement—practically the antithesis in tone and style to Romney’s technical, consultant-oriented overtures to the right-wing base. Murdoch’s real political model and political hero is Michael Bloomberg—staunch, independent, I-don’t-give-a-damn. But “fighter” for Murdoch also means winner. In some ways, he cares about this quality more than any single issue. After 60 years of making, breaking, and betting on politicians, he believes above all in his ability to sense victory.
And when it comes to Romney, he does not.
Michael Wolff is the author of The Man Who Owns the News: Inside the Secret World of Rupert Murdoch and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair magazine. This article appeared in the September 23, 2012 issue of the magazine.