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Roger Ailes Is Not That Powerful

We know more than ever about how vile Roger Ailes is. But he still can't elect a president.

Rob Kim/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The phrase “evil genius” is generally applied with either exaggeration or irony; how many people really fall into both categories? The Loudest Voice in the Room, Gabriel Sherman’s enormously entertaining new biography of Roger Ailes, leaves the reader in little doubt about the maliciousness of its subject, who refused to cooperate with a book he saw as an attempt to undermine both himself and the network he runs, the Fox News Channel. Sherman is studiously non-judgmental about Ailes’s relentlessly disgusting behavior and toxic political views, which only has the effect of highlighting his exhaustive (and eventually nearly exhausting) reporting.

This leaves genius. There isn’t much doubt about the political acuity Ailes displayed during his successful career as a Republican operative working for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. And there is absolutely no doubt that Ailes is a remarkably intuitive and innovative television executive who took an upstart conservative channel and turned it—in less than a decade—into an agenda-setting behemoth.

Sherman is so awed by Ailes’s skills, however, that he ends up overstating his influence, and taking Ailes’s own narrative too much for granted. “Roger Ailes has the power, more than any single person in American public life, to define the president,” he writes in his prologue. The problem is that Sherman’s account never sufficiently challenges Ailes’s cynical view of politics, wherein image and narrative are everything. Ailes has certainly revolutionized television news, but winning audience share is a far cry from winning the White House.

Sherman’s story begins with Ailes’s childhood in rural Ohio where, it will surprise approximately no one, he was burdened with poor health and a sadistic father. “The cruelest lesson Roger would speak of occurred in the bedroom Roger shared with his brother,” Sherman writes.* “Roger was standing on the top bunk. His father opened his arms wide and smiled. ‘Jump, Roger, jump,’ he told him. Roger leapt off the bed into the air toward his arms. But Robert took a step back. His son fell flat onto the floor. As he looked up, [Ailes Sr.] leaned down and picked him up. ‘Don’t ever trust anybody,’ he said.” This bizarre form of sadism was coupled with more traditional varieties --“If they ignored him, he pulled out his belt, whipping them not until they began to cry, although they did wail, but until they fell silent” —and a mother who was alternately controlling and cold. “Roger remembered her hugging him only ‘once in a while,’” Sherman reports. “He speculated to a reporter that perhaps she was scared of his hemophilia.”

It is to Sherman’s credit that he both elicits sympathy for Ailes, and quickly dispels any hope that Ailes’s story is an uplifting one. This book is not about overcoming one’s odds, and rising above pettiness. No, pretty soon young Roger is off working for The Mike Douglas Show and then Richard Nixon, who had a similarly rough upbringing, and who happened to have all the qualities that Ailes would eventually develop: pettiness, self-pity, and paranoia.

The story of Ailes’s work for Nixon’s first successful presidential campaign is well told by Sherman, who adds to the narrative already sketched by Joe McGinnis in The Selling of the President 1968. (McGinnis both wrote about Ailes’s role and became friendly with him.) Sherman charts Ailes’s attempts to master television, a medium that the candidate had notoriously struggled with eight years earlier. Ailes helped Nixon prepare for live questioning, and obsessed over things like camera placement. “Filming Nixon from below his eye level made him appear taller, a commanding leader,” Sherman writes. “Roger Ailes would be responsible for executing this vision [of television’s importance], transplanting his talk show techniques to the business of electing a president.” Of another Nixon aide, Sherman writes, “Price argued that Nixon could win if the campaign made the audience feel differently about their candidate.” [Italics His]

The problem with this analysis is that Ailes begins to loom so large that one gets the sense Sherman may really believe that Ailes made Nixon president. “The Nixon television experiment convinced [Ailes] that you could get away with it,” Sherman notes, with “it” being a winning a presidential election through television. But is that what really happened in 1968? In 1960, Richard Nixon ran against John F. Kennedy, an enormously appealing (albeit young and Catholic) candidate for the presidency, and essentially ran even with him. In 1968, Richard Nixon ran against a much less appealing candidate, Hubert Humphrey, who was running in a divided party as the vice president to a very unpopular chief executive…and essentially ran even with him. (He won by less than a single percentage point in the popular vote.) Not only was Nixon’s 1968 win no more impressive than his earlier loss, but pretending that his victory was due to television is a hard thesis to support, even if Nixon was almost certainly better on the air than he had been in 1960.  

Sherman doesn’t spend much time on the Reagan years, but he does provide an account of Ailes’s advice to the president in 1984, when Ailes told the president that he had to somehow address the subject of his age. Reagan famously did so in the second presidential debate with Walter Mondale, where he made a joke about Mondale’s “youth and inexperience.” These pages certainly display Ailes’s strategic sense, but again, we are basically asked to believe that one of the most lopsided elections in American history was the result of a joke inspired by an Ailes comment. (Or, as Sherman writes, “It was the push Reagan needed.)

Sherman also reveals in this section that a woman who applied for a job with Ailes claimed that he agreed to pay her more if she would sleep with him “whenever” he desired. This story is given credence by a second woman who made a similar claim, but it also fits with the developing picture Sherman is sketching: a man with bottomless appetites (he once ordered three entire pages of a room service menu), a hair-trigger temper, and little self control. After Ailes’s client Al D’Amato criticized one of Ailes’s staffers, Ailes turned to the New York Senator and asked him if he could fly. When D’Amato wondered why he had asked that, Ailes responded, “Because we’re forty-two stories up, and you’re going to go out that window if you say one more word.” In a different person, this would have seemed like standing up for one’s employee. With Ailes, who never showed the smallest concern for his employees (unless they were making him money), it was about his ego.

One interesting strain that runs throughout the entire narrative is Ailes’s dependence on the “mainstream” media that he so despises. Ailes received his biggest break when he was called in to run CNBC in the 1990s. And not only did his bosses overlook numerous examples of bad behavior—extensively chronicled here—but his success led to Rupert Murdoch’s decision to hire him him to run Fox News.

Sherman charts the Ailes-Murdoch relationship, which has been occasionally testy since Fox News launched nearly 20 years ago, but also, essentially, close. Sherman defines one of their bonding elements as the “antiauthoritarian streak” in both men, which of course is ironic given that each clearly had an authoritarian personality. As Anthony Powell wrote of a character in his novel The Kindly Ones, “The one thing he hated, more than constituted authority itself, was to hear constituted authority questioned by anyone but himself. This is perhaps an endemic trait in all those who love power.” It also seems to be a good definition of Ailes’s brand of conservatism, which marries libertarian paranoia (except regarding Republican-initiated wars) and social conformity. (For those who think Fox’s obsessive coverage of the “War on Christmas” is merely a political stunt, Sherman has a scene of Ailes defacing a wall in his son’s school to write ‘Merry Christmas’ because he was angry that that the school had a “holiday tree.”)

The mainstream media did not just help Ailes rise; it was also the perfect foil. Fox News began as, essentially, the anti-Clinton network, and Sherman shows us in great detail how it was in response to the mainstream media’s coverage of the Clinton scandals that Fox was able to find a niche for itself. (Sherman does make clear that the mainstream media actually went after Clinton quite relentlessly.) Ailes also displayed his hiring genius by grabbing Brit Hume, the talented, conservative news anchor from ABC, and, crucially, placing big bets on Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly, the latter a clearly unstable person who is nevertheless a brilliant showman on television. (I hadn’t realized that Ailes was the first person after September 11th to order use of the so-called “crawl” at the bottom of the screen.)

Sherman deserves credit for keeping these chapters compelling because the sheer lowness of the people who populate the narrative could have become wearying. During a 2002 lunch with Bill Clinton and others, for example, Ailes started discussing 9/11. As one participant recalled, “[Ailes] was talking about rebuilding the towers and he said, ‘We should fill the last ten floors with Muslims so they never do it again.’” (Sherman does not report Bill Clinton objecting furiously, or storming out of the room, after this comment.) Various homophobic remarks from Sean Hannity are also noted, and Sherman goes on to say, with tongue firmly in cheek,“Strangely, given his avowed disapproval, Hannity expressed a prurient interest in…explicit descriptions of enemas, golden showers, and bestiality.”

The last few years of Ailes’s story are better known, in part because Sherman’s reporting has already appeared in New York magazine, and in part because the merging of the Republican Party and Fox has become a larger and larger topic of conversation. Sherman covers these familiar bases with ease, and Ailes’s opinions of various Republicans—nasty Gingrich, dumb Palin, not-ready-for-poltical-primetime Huckabee—will not surprise anyone. Ailes’s increasing concern over the Obama administration, which he views as wanting to institute some variety of fascism, and his view that climate change is part of an international conspiracy, do tend to further the impression that Ailes is deranged as well as cynical and cruel. (Murdoch’s term for Ailes is “paranoid.”)

Now that Fox has convinced even the last doubter of its relevance and success, the only real remaining question is how much that relevance matters to American politics. And the one recurrent weakness of Sherman’s book arises particularly often in his description of these later years. For example, Sherman quotes Ailes saying in 2010, “I want to elect the next president.” And: “If there was anyone who could deliver on such a boast, it was Ailes.” One would have thought perhaps David Plouffe or Ben Bernanke would be a more obvious answer, but Sherman sticks to this belief, even though the picture his reporting draws doesn’t really support it. Ailes couldn’t stand Romney, who didn’t have an easy ride on Fox News, but the former Massachusetts governor nevertheless won the Republican nomination in 2012; Ailes tried to convince Chris Christie and David Petraeus to run, to no avail; and the portrait Ailes sketched of Obama for over four years was not nearly entrenched enough to keep the president from handily winning re-election.

Ailes certainly helped shape the rightwing vision of Obama, which had some spillover into mainstream discourse; but television coverage is not everything in a presidential campaign. In fact, it’s another line of Sherman’s, mentioned almost off-handedly, that is closer to the truth: “television and politics were different disciplines.” Precisely. Image, visuals, narrative, base appeal: these are what make Ailes the master of cable television. But elections are different, more complicated beasts. Ailes himself does not seem to grasp this. Sherman quotes him saying, about the 2008 McCain campaign, “He has this fantastic story and he tends to minimize it.” Quite the contrary: All McCain had was a “story,” which he relied on at length to cover up a lack of policy ideas.

Sherman does nod at this possible critique of his thesis, but he doesn’t follow through on it. “While Fox’s ratings were still unchallenged, the channel had failed to elect the next president—the circus on Fox had complicated the effort as well as assisted it….Fox had sharpened national divisions—and the division had favored the Democrats.” This is basically correct, but it also gives Fox too much credit—in this case for having a huge effect, just in the wrong direction. Despite liberal paranoia over the effect that Fox News has, however, Sherman is right to say that the rise of Fox has changed the Republican Party: it’s more close-minded, more anti-intellectual.

The idea that we live in a country where Roger Ailes—or any television executive—can decide who is president is horrifying. Fortunately, we don’t. Roger Ailes will go down in history as a disturbed genius who is indeed the loudest voice in the room. But even the loudest voices can be tuned out.

*A previous version of this sentence has been changed to reflect how it appears in the finished edition of Sherman's book. It is Ailes's own account of childhood abuse, not Sherman's.