Who is the most consequential conservative of the past 30 years? When you think about it, it’s hard to come up with many plausible answers. Is it Newt Gingrich for what he did in the 1990s? The ’90s and 2000s were a virtual wasteland for conservatives. There’s no one, really, who comes to mind from the Bush Administration. So maybe it’s Rush Limbaugh? Or Donald Trump?
A new documentary on Amazon Prime, “The Man in the Arena,” makes a compelling argument that the answer is Roger Ailes. Released last month, the documentary is a captivating sketch of a unique and fascinating American life.
Ailes was born in Warren, Ohio in 1940 a bit more than a year before America entered World War II. In those days, Warren was a thriving factory town in America’s industrial heartland. The work wasn’t easy but it was plentiful, a factory worker like Ailes’ father could support a family on his salary alone, and the kids could get ahead if they worked hard. Roger certainly did that, famously so, and so did his brother Robert, who is a doctor.
His early years were in some ways the most captivating for me. Beginnings always are. Answering the question of how an extraordinary person can break out of mediocrity’s gravitational pull is a story that never gets old. Ailes’ big break came working for “The Mike Douglas Show” in the ’60s. He quickly made himself the indispensable man which eventually earned him enough notice to become executive producer of the wildly successful show at the age of 28.
“Why me?” Ailes asked when informed of the promotion. The answer was that whenever something went wrong, whenever they needed an idea, an angle, or a solution, the call would go out across the studio “Get Ailes.”
Ailes was the guy they knew they could count on to make the show special. While working on the show Ailes met and worked with an impressive list of the era’s most interesting and consequential people: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., the Rolling Stones, Billy Graham, and the Beatles. He left the show in 1968 and joined Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign as the executive producer of television. Recall that Nixon famously hated television in politics after his 1960 debate with JFK. But Ailes changed that and showed Nixon how he could use television to his advantage. Ailes’ insight? Be as authentic as possible.
This insight foreshadowed the title of his 1988 book, You Are The Message. He added to that some tactical genius like being the first in a presidential campaign to suggest holding a televised town hall, presenting it in the round, and adding a cheering section of Nixon supporters as an island of stability in what was an otherwise unknown sea.
After the campaign, Ailes spent six weeks living in a tent in Africa with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. while making a documentary. (Interesting sidenote: footage from their time in Africa reveals RFK, Jr. to have been a surprisingly fast runner.) In retrospect, this might seem incongruous, but it was classic Ailes. People liked him and he liked people.
He went on to form a media consulting and production company serving mostly corporate clients. But in 1984, he advised Ronald Reagan’s reelection campaign helping Reagan come back from a terrible first debate with Walter Mondale. In that debate, Reagan was off and looked tired. That fueled a media storm about whether Reagan, at 73, was too old to be president. (Note that Joe Biden will be 78 on inauguration day in 2021) “Get Ailes!” Reagan may have shouted.
And it’s a good thing he did. Ailes gave Reagan the comeback line that put to rest any doubts about his age and cognitive ability: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
But it wasn’t until Ailes built Fox News into a powerhouse that broke the monopoly of Left-liberal legacy media on television news that he became public enemy number one. It’s a role he seems to have relished.
Rupert Murdoch hired Ailes in 1996 to run the new network and the rest is history. His role in building Fox changed his legacy from one of savvy, successful political operator and media Svengali to that of a man who profoundly influenced politics and culture for generations of Americans.
Rush Limbaugh in the movie says of the legacy media, “I think that they spend so much time trying to destroy or discredit, they don’t want to debate us, they don’t want to get into the arena of ideas and actually talk about what we believe. They really try to discredit us not only with our own audiences but with people who haven’t begun to listen or to watch yet. They try to take you out. It’s not that they want a level playing field, they don’t even want us on it.” In a similar vein, New Gingrich added that the media’s goal is “not to win the argument, but to destroy the arguer.”
These were the realizations that animated Ailes and were the basis for the success of Fox News.
“The Man in the Arena” tells the story of a man in full. Roger Ailes was energetic, ambitious, unorthodox, creative, brilliant, charming, disarming, and a bunch of other things that made all kinds of different people yell, at critical moments, “Get Ailes!” I didn’t know him, but I wish I had.
Watch the trailer here: