Roger Ailes met Richard Nixon in 1967 on the set of “The Mike Douglas Show.”
“It’s a shame,” Nixon told Ailes, “a man has to use gimmicks like this to get elected.”
Ailes, just 28 years old, was the show’s producer — a TV wunderkind.
“Television is not a gimmick,” replied Ailes, who died Thursday at 77.
The brief off-camera conversation would go down, for both men, as a transformative moment in their lives, a story brilliantly told in “The Selling of the President,” by Joe McGinniss.
Nixon liked Ailes’s chutzpah. Hire the man, he told an aide.
Ailes’s first job in a long life of political spin was selling Nixon, who might have blown the 1960 presidential election to John F. Kennedy because of his sweaty, rigid appearance during the first televised debate.
Nixon — a man so stiff that he was once photographed walking on the beach in wingtips — needed Ailes. That fall, Nixon dispatched his new image-maker to Chicago to produce a series of live televised discussions.
“There would be a studio audience to cheer Nixon’s answers and make it seem to home viewers that enthusiasm for his candidacy was all but uncontrollable,” McGinniss wrote. “And there would be an effort to achieve a conversational tone that would penetrate Nixon’s stuffiness and drive out the displeasure he often seemed to feel when surrounded by other human beings.”
Six hours before the first show, Ailes became extremely agitated.
“Those stupid bastards on the set-designing crew put turquoise curtains in the background,” Ailes told McGinniss. “Nixon wouldn’t look right unless he was carrying a pocketbook.”
Ailes scrambled to replace the curtains with wooden panels.
“The wood has clean, solid, masculine lines,” Ailes said.
No detail escaped Ailes in packaging Nixon for sale on those TV shows. After watching Nixon’s performance on TV, Ailes jotted down his impressions and advice, which McGinniss included in his book, word for word.
- “He still uses his arms a little too ‘predictably’ and a little too often, but at this point it is better not to inhibit him.”
- “His eye contact is good with the panelists, but he should play a little more to the home audience via the head-on camera. I would like to talk to him about this.”
- “I may try slightly whiter makeup on upper eyelids.”
- “I may lower the riser he stands on a couple of inches.”
- “Color lights are hot and he has a tendency to perspire, especially along the upper lip.”
- “Whenever he is going to tape a show, the studio air-conditioning should be turned up full at least four hours prior to broadcast, and camera rehearsal should be limited as much as possible in this time period to keep the lights off and the heat down.”
- “An effort should be made to keep him in the sun occasionally to maintain a fairly constant level of healthy tan.”
- “The microphone cord needs to be dressed and looped to the side.”
There would be many more TV appearances staged by Ailes.
One evening before a special call-in program at NBC, McGinniss reported, Ailes was in a foul mood after recently hurting his ankle sky diving. He noticed Nixon’s chair was wobbly.
“Do you want him to tip over?” Ailes said to a set designer. “The back is loose. Do you want him to lean back and go over on his ass?”
The designer said he had an orange chair that might work.
“Goddamn it,” Ailes snapped back, “no, we’re not going to use an orange chair.”
With a better chair in place, and with the rehearsal canceled so the lights wouldn’t heat up the room, Ailes went to a dressing room and laid down.
“This is the beginning of a whole new concept,” Ailes said, as recounted by McGinniss. “This is the way they’ll be elected forevermore. The next guys up will have to be performers.”
Nearly 50 years later, so did another Ailes protege: the former host of “The Apprentice.”
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