Every so often in his work as a Republican media consultant, a hundred campaigns shrewder than when he began with Richard Nixon, Roger Ailes finds it necessary to pose a simple question. He generally saves it for business meetings on the upper floors of Manhattan skyscrapers, although altitude per se is not the controlling factor. He has also asked it in Washington buildings of 10 stories or less.
The question is, “Can you fly?"
He put it to Sen. Alfonse D'Amato one day as they were mapping out strategy for the New York Republican's 1986 reelection race. The senator had just vented his spleen at one of Ailes' employees.
"Can you fly?” the consultant asked his high-paying client.
"Because we're 42 stories up, and you're going to go out that window if you say one more word."
Today D'Amato laughs off the incident — after all, he was reelected. “Roger,” he says, “can be tough and emotional. I like that."
Ailes has yet to ask George Bush about his aerodynamic abilities. Of greater concern are the vice president's on-air abilities, especially now that he's the designated Republican presidential nominee and his Democratic counterpart is a former television host.
As Bush's senior media adviser in the race against Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis — late of public television's “The Advocates” — Ailes is responsible for the most visible element of the campaign, the most expensive, and the one that may very well decide the election. He's the keeper of his candidate's flickering image, a job that permits no fear of flying.
"If he has a fault that bothers me,” Ailes says of his latest customer, “it's that he doesn't have enough personal ego."
"He knows my shortcomings,” says Bush, who is running behind in the polls, “and he's helpful in trying to overcome them."
"I love pressure situations,” Ailes says. “I won't run for cover, and I'll try to take as much of the heat as possible. Because I feel I can stand it better than most people."
"He's a mature professional in a very flamboyant art,” Bush says. “Not like the ones who get in some posture where they're always building themselves up."
"I consider myself a freedom fighter, fighting for my clients,” Ailes says in his office at Bush for President headquarters, around the corner from the White House — so near and yet so far.
Plump and balding, he seems an unlikely freedom fighter. The knot of his tie rides down his chest. A whitening goatee hangs from his fleshy face. He looks battered beyond his 48 years.
He's been battle tested by two decades in politics, a profession he embraced after a precocious career in television. He started in 1962, after Ohio University, as a prop boy in Cleveland and rocketed up the ranks. Six years later, when he jumped to the Nixon campaign from his $ 60,000-a-year job as the Emmy-winning producer of “The Mike Douglas Show” — then one of the most popular talk shows in America — he was all of 28.
Nixon had spotted him a few months earlier while doing a “Douglas” guest shot. The former vice president, mounting his second attempt on the White House, had been waiting in Ailes' office. “It's a shame a man has to use gimmicks like this to get elected,” Nixon told the young producer. “Television is not a gimmick,” Ailes replied, “and if you think it is, you'll lose again.” Nixon was smitten.
Ailes went on to invent the “Man in the Arena” commercials, a series of live television shows in which Nixon gave carefully honed answers to questions from a carefully selected panel. Nixon, a' la Ailes, positively glowed with spontaneity. The studio audience was instructed to mob him at the end. It was a pivotal moment in American politics, the creation of an industry, and Ailes was duly celebrated in “The Selling of the President,” the classic campaign book by Joe McGinniss.
"Now you put him on television, you've got a problem right away,” Ailes told McGinniss in 1968 with the sort of brash candor that he studiously avoids when discussing his current client. “He's a funny-looking guy. He looks like somebody hung him in a closet overnight and he jumps out in the morning with his suit all bunched up and starts running around saying, 'I want to be president.' I mean this is how he strikes some people. That's why these shows are important. To make them forget all that."
Ailes arrived on crutches for Nixon's election-eve telethon in California, having discovered skydiving the day before, and directed it swathed in bandages, his ankle in an ice bucket. “Roger didn't have any of the tentativeness that you might expect from somebody as young as he was,” McGinniss recalls today. “He was,” says Leonard Garment, a comrade-in-arms from the Nixon days, “the Ernest Hemingway of campaign advisers."
Ailes has grown since then in both girth and reputation. Robert Teeter, Bush's pollster, likens him to Orson Welles. He calls himself “the Old Fox” but answers to other noms de guerre. After a debate last December on NBC, during which Bush quipped that viewers were probably so bored they were switching to “Jake and the Fatman” — a line fed to him by Ailes — senior aides suddenly had nicknames for the vice president and his media adviser. But, Ailes says, “for some reason, he calls me 'Jake.' "
Ailes winces with pain as he rises from his desk to stretch out a stiffened hamstring — the result of overzealous base-running during a recent Bush league softball game. He limps around the room as he verbally swaggers, “The difference between pros and amateurs is that pros play hurt.” Mid-hobble, he bends over majestically to pull up a pants leg, showing off a giant bruise — his purple badge of courage.
In a moment of bluster, he compares himself to Babe Ruth. “I never want to lose. I hate to lose . . . But Babe Ruth struck out 1,300 times. You can't hit the home run every time you come up to bat."
In a moment of introspection, he says, “Your paper called me 'pugnacious' — do you think I am? . . . I would appreciate it if you said somewhere that this guy was the most reluctant of anybody to cooperate. I don't ever want George Bush to think that I'm doing this for some kind of personal publicity."
In fact, Ailes has just cowritten a book on the subject, “You Are the Message: Secrets of the Master Communicators,” wherein he advises prospective interview subjects: “Remember to stay composed — at all times. A reporter may provoke you with the hope that you will blow up and leak sensitive information or blurt out a controversial quote . . . Occasionally, you'll run into a reporter who appears to be on a search and destroy mission."
The master communicator, who had earlier confided that “there are not many situations that make me uptight,” refuses to let his picture be taken. “Photo editors are sadistic bastards,” he says. “And photographers always make me look heavy.” He can't resist adding, “Believe it or not, a lot of it's muscle."
'That's It! The Race Is Over!'
In his youth Ailes aspired to be a fighter pilot, but couldn't meet the Air Force's physical requirements. Yet he has safely steered Bush, who flew World War II bombers, through the occasionally stormy airwaves of the primary season, coaching the candidate through seven televised debates and a spectacular dogfight with Dan Rather, and making commercials that sold the theme “Ready on Day One to Be a Great President."
While Ailes is paid handsomely for his trouble — $ 25,000 a month plus advertising commissions that will likely exceed $ 1 million — there are doubtless easier ways to get rich. The consensus, even among Democrats, is that Bush is lucky to have him in the cockpit.
"What is most surprising about people like Roger is that they are the last romantics in politics,” says Democratic media consultant Robert Squier, who entered the business, opposite Ailes, as Hubert Humphrey's television director in 1968. “They're very competitive, care about winning, care about who they work for, care about what other people think of their work, and are really aware that they're involved in changing the most important political system in the world."
Since signing on last summer Ailes has managed to persuade his charge to remove his wire-rims from time to time, slow his habitually breathless rate of speech — which serendipitously lowers the pitch of his voice — and, as Bush himself reports, “keep my eyes still."
The vice president has further work to do. He is often caught grimacing and scratching — live and in color, before audiences of millions. On ABC's “Nightline” earlier this month he kept addressing his interviewer as “Dan.” It was left to Ailes, on the scene in Houston, to scrawl the word “TED,” as in Koppel, on a piece of paper and hang it up beside the camera where Bush couldn't miss it. Later Ailes “raised a little hell” with Bush's senior staff for not being consulted about the scheduling of the appearance. “I thought it was a lousy idea,” Ailes says. “He was tired."
And Bush has yet to talk consistently in well-parsed sentences. As he recently observed: “So I think to kind of suddenly get my hair colored, and dance up and down in a miniskirt or do something — show I've got a lot of jazz out there — drop a bunch of one-liners. We're talking about running for president of the United States."
"The good news,” says Democratic media consultant David Sawyer, “is that George Bush takes direction terrifically. The bad news is that one of the reasons he takes direction terrifically is he doesn't seem to have a real persona. He seems to be molded by whoever he is talking to at that particular time. Often he seems like an old preppy, running around saying, 'Kick a little ass, gosh, jeez,' and there's a dissonance there — something out of sync. But if anybody can meet that challenge, Roger Ailes can meet it."
Ailes is at pains to discount such talk. “George Bush is not a showman, but he's very sincere,” he says. “To mess with who he is, is stupid . . . One of the things that you learn in this business is what hurts and what doesn't hurt. And I get calls every day from friends of his or friends of mine who say, 'Oh my God! Did you see what he said? That's it! The race is over!' But there are peaks and valleys, good days and bad, some things that count and some things that don't count."
As for Bush's alleged malleability, Ailes says, “A couple of times, he's told me, 'Go to hell! I'm 63 years old and I'll do what I want!' . . . But the good news is we can say whatever we think and clear the air the next morning. This is a guy you can go into the fire for, because he's for real."
Yet for all of the qualities that propelled him to the vice presidency, Bush isn't the nimblest of politicians, often telling voters more about the machinery than the message of his campaign. For instance, he recently went public with his anti-Dukakis strategy — “I'm going to be attempting to help him into the [liberal] mold, shoehorn him, help him in” — thus violating the cardinal rule that a candidate should never discuss “process."
"I don't know why he's talking about that,” Ailes said a few days later, when the statement was repeated to him at Ailes Communications Inc., his home office in New York's theater district. “I guess I haven't been around enough. That's usually a signal that I have to get back to Washington.” He grinned. “I don't talk much about process. I let him talk about process."
On Ailes' desk in Washington, where he has finally taken an apartment, is a videocassette of Michael Dukakis in action. Is he looking for chinks in the armor?
"I'm looking for the armor,” he replies. “I get feelings from watching television. Right now I'm trying to figure out how I feel about Mike Dukakis.” So far, Ailes feels that the governor is “the kind of guy who wants to know whether it's time to eat."
"I think Dukakis will be very tough in debates,” he adds. “He knows how to duck and dodge and twist words and shade arguments and do other subtle things because of his 'Advocates' experience. He clearly has a skill at presenting himself as other than what he is. And that always makes for a dangerous debater."
Ailes knows whereof he speaks.
In 1970 he was working for Senate candidate Robert Taft Jr. of Ohio, who was opposing Gov. James Rhodes in the Republican primary. Taft, the underdog despite his famous name, was laconic and aloof. Rhodes was affable and articulate, by far the superior debater. But Ailes had an idea for the crucial matchup on statewide television.
Thirty seconds before the red lights came on, Ailes bounded onto the stage and handed Taft a folded piece of paper. “Don't use this unless you need it,” he stage-whispered to his candidate. As Rhodes watched with evident concern, Taft unfolded the note, read it and chuckled. When the debate got underway, viewers saw an unnerved Rhodes and a smiling, confident Taft. Rhodes never regained his footing. It was the turning point of the campaign — and Taft came from behind to win.
Ailes had grasped early on what is now universally understood: Televised debates can be decided by a telling gesture or a flip phrase that becomes the sound bite on the evening news. That was certainly the case in the fall of 1984, when Ronald Reagan flopped in his first debate against Walter Mondale, turning in a befuddled performance that made him seem old. Ailes, a $ 12,000-a-month consultant to the “Tuesday Team,” Reagan's advertising group, was called in to help.
In several private sessions, Ailes went about building up the president's sagging confidence, urging him to trust his instincts and not worry about details. The day before the second debate in Kansas City, Ailes asked, “What are you going to do when they say you're too old for the job?” Reagan fell silent, then remembered a line from his repertoire. “Fine,” Ailes said. It was typical of Ailes that he told the president's aides he needed a final session alone with Reagan half an hour before the debate. “If you give me that, he'll win. If you don't, he'll probably lose."
Ailes got his half-hour, and Reagan got his sound bite: “I want you to know 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.” Ailes writes in “You Are the Message”: “As far as I was concerned, the debate was over . . . The public had the reassurance they were looking for, and Reagan had the election won."
In this year's primary campaign, the vice president's nemesis, Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas, ran a commercial suggesting that Bush has left no footprints in his long succession of government jobs. But Ailes' footprints were all over his combative debate performances. These received better reviews than his shrill display four years ago (when he taunted Geraldine Ferraro, “Whine on, harvest moon!"), and Ailes' role was crucial last January in the confrontation with Rather. “This is a political assassination about to happen,” he recalls warning Bush in the limousine on the way to the Capitol, where the “CBS Evening News” crew was setting up. By most accounts (Ailes won't say), he supplied his client with the famous coup de gra|ce.
"It's not fair to judge my whole career by a rehash on Iran,” Bush told the CBS anchor at the climactic moment. “How would you like it if I judged your career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set in New York? Would you like that?"
"It was one of the great moments in television,” Ailes says of the thrust, actually a reference to an incident last January in Miami. “If you freeze-frame it when he asked Dan Rather that question, and watch his eyes, he had long eye blinks and his head went down just like a fighter who had taken a hard punch. He took a right cross to the jaw that no anchorman in the history of television has ever taken."
For the fall matches with Dukakis, Ailes promises more of the same. “If you hit George Bush, he's going to hit you back. But he's not a guy who's looking for a fight."
'Where to Go, Who to Bite' Ailes himself has personal ego enough to match his weight, which he rarely hesitates to throw around. His aggressiveness goes back to his youth in Warren, Ohio, as the son of a factory maintenance foreman who gave him pointers on self-defense.
"Violence never solves anything,” Ailes says, quoting from his store of epigrams, “but the threat of violence can be very useful.” Except, of course, when violence is very useful.
The stories of Ailes in combat are legion. As a television director in Cleveland, he grabbed a loyal but “obnoxious” advertiser by the seat of his pants, ran him through the control room and threw him off the loading dock into a pile of snow. He remembers the incident as “a fun thing.” In 1984, around the time he advised Phil Gramm's successful Senate race, Ailes was checking into a hotel in Texas late one night and ended up brawling with two “butch” young men in spiked leather. They started it, he says, but he finished it — pouncing on one of them, flipping him to the lobby floor and deftly breaking his wrist.
"My father always told me, 'If you have to take two, disarm one,' " Ailes says.
He attributes his moxie to his “blue-collar blood” and the many nights he spent in hospital rooms as a child — frightened and alone, the butt of schoolmates' jokes — because of chronic illness. At age 13 he was sent to a YMCA camp in the wilds of northern Ontario, where the once-frail boy helped rescue two canoeists who had capsized in a squall on Lake Tenegami.
"He did things to prove to himself that he could do it,” says his older brother Robert, a doctor who helped Ailes start his consulting business in the post-Nixon years.
"All I wanted to do was to make enough money so I'd never have to live the life my father lived,” Roger says. Robert Ailes Sr., a gregarious Mason, had to paint neighbors' houses at night to make ends meet, and helped support the family after divorcing Roger's mother in the late '50s. “Had he dumped us kids, he could have had an opportunity. He had a driving sense of responsibility that overwhelmed everything. The poor guy never had a new suit. He had two pairs of shoes in the closet, one for Sunday and the other for the rest of the week. That's a tough way to live."
"Roger is the antithesis of preppy,” says Republican pollster Lance Tarrance, a frequent partner in campaigns. “Ailes will fight at the drop of a hat. Bush might contemplate for 30 days."
Ailes is decidedly meat-and-potatoes as a maker of political commercials, despite a knack for show business, producing plays on and off Broadway and documentaries about such nonpoliticians as Federico Fellini. His style favors utility over beauty, videotape over film — at its best crisp and hard-edge, visually humdrum at worst. Many of the Bush spots feature the candidate talking straight to the camera.
"He is more of a message communicator than a graphics or technical director,” says Tarrance. Unlike Republican media man Robert Goodman, known among his peers as an artist who works by feel, “Roger is driven by research,” says political consultant Eddie Mahe. “He is more of a mechanic, but a very talented and skilled mechanic."
Ailes is proud that his advertising campaigns have no easily discernible pattern — and, indeed, rivals are hard pressed to describe an “Ailes formula.” This makes him unpredictable. Ailes' “Bloodhound” spots for Mitch McConnell's successful 1984 Senate race in Kentucky were widely credited with reversing his 30-point deficit against the Democratic incumbent, Dee Huddleston. The spots featured a brace of bloodhounds chasing a Huddleston look-alike as an announcer decried his absenteeism and charged him with “running from his record.” They were funny — and deadly.
"The ones I regret,” Ailes says, “are the ones where I say, 'I could have done more, I should have done more,' or 'Gee, if I'd only thought of that three weeks earlier.' Those are the ones I replay in my mind, and they torment me."
In the 1982 reelection campaign of Sen. Harrison Schmitt (R-N.M.), Ailes relied on Schmitt’s staff research to produce two ads attacking Democratic state Attorney General Jeff Bingaman. Roundly denounced as inaccurate and unfair, they claimed Bingaman “hid from responsibility” by “refusing to p
cute” inmates involved in a prison massacre and that he recommended a gubernatorial pardon for a prisoner previously on the FBI's most-wanted list. The spots blew up in Schmitt's face, and may have cost him his Senate seat — although he says Ailes was not at fault. “It was my decision to run them,” says Schmitt, now an Albuquerque businessman. “We were behind, and we had to do something."
Ailes has learned from defeats. After his candidate Lew Lehrman spent $ 12 million against Mario Cuomo's $ 2 million to narrowly lose the 1982 New York governor's race — in no small measure because Lehrman's profligate time-buying operation was “putting death penalty spots in 'The Muppet Show,' " Ailes recalls — he vowed to take control of the media buys in all his future campaigns. Indeed, he hired Cuomo's buyer, Catherine Farrell, and today owns two-thirds of Farrell Media, which is placing Bush's ads.
After Bush's near-fatal loss to Dole in Iowa last February, it was Ailes who hurried to New Hampshire and, despite walking pneumonia, went sleepless for three nights to whip up a half-hour television show, “Ask George Bush” (“Man in the Arena” redux), a five-minute endorsement spot featuring Barry Goldwater and a negative ad implying that Dole would raise taxes.
He pushed Bush to approve the spot, then got it on the air the weekend before the primary, when all the television stations had officially closed their logs. At one point he put Bush on the phone with a Boston station manager to thank him for his help. All in all it was a decisive performance, without which Bush might have lost New Hampshire — and kissed the nomination goodbye.
"He's like a pit bull, with no fear,” says Robert Ailes. “Tell him where to go and who to bite — and he's on him."
Yet, says his second wife Norma, Ailes is also the kind of man who will crawl out of bed to sleep on the floor with a sick dog. “After 11 years, I'm never bored with this man,” she says. And he is the kind of man, says his first wife Marge, who can remain friendly with an ex.
Others claim to see a vindictive side — as when he worked last year for Rep. Bob McEwen's abortive Senate campaign in Ohio, letting it be known that he was doing it for less than his usual fee. Ailes had hoped to make ads for the Republican front-runner, Cleveland Mayor George Voinovich, and was angry that Voinovich, who had hired Bob Goodman, never gave him the chance. “I wouldn't know George Voinovich if he hit me in the ass with a banjo,” Ailes says today.
He “definitely views every campaign as a full-blown war,” says media consultant Greg Stevens, who recently opened the Washington office of Ailes Communications after making spots for Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), including several attacking Bush.
Indeed, the prospect of working against Ailes, says Dukakis ad maker Ken Swope, “scares the hell out of me."
"For me it's personal chemistry,” the vice president says. “I just plain like him."
Ailes, meanwhile, suggests Bush is a candidate who can fly.
“You study a guy with that war record,” he says. “Twenty years old and your wings are on fire and you try to make a decision whether you’re going to complete the mission — there’s something in there that says, when it hits the fan, you do what you have to do. George is tougher than a lot of people suspect.”