The Roger Ailes I Knew

By Lee McNutt, Co-Founder: Silicon Valley Growth Syndicate, Menlo Park, CA
My former boss, Mr. Roger Ailes, the wizard-behind-the-curtain for Republican Presidents Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush, was fired recently by Rupert Murdoch. He was fired on the 28th anniversary of the start of his greatest feat in politics: the 18 point comeback in 1988 of Vice President Bush to become our 41st President.

On July 21, 1988, Michael Dukakis reached his zenith with his acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention in Atlanta, Georgia. Mr. Ailes told me: “No presidential candidate in American history has come from this far behind this late in the race. But, we will.” He was right.

Very few people invent a new role in American politics and then succeed in that role. Roger did. As a 27 year old, he was characteristically blunt with another Vice President, Richard Nixon. He once told him: “Television is not a gimmick… And, if you think it is, you will lose again.” In 1968, Richard Nixon hired him, and listened. Mr. Ailes’s role in the defeat of Hubert Humphrey is well known and documented.

In early July of 1988, I left a job in the Reagan White House to join the Bush campaign, to do anything I could, in my own small way, to help continue the Reagan legacy. In his acceptance speech, Gov. Dukakis bragged, “The era of Reagan is over.” Mr. Ailes gave me an office in a kitchen space, four doors down from his, and a two foot high stack of prospective TV and radio ad scripts. He said, “We have no monopoly on good ideas here at national headquarters. They come from outside the campaign. Dig through these and dig some more.”

During the Bush Dukakis race, Mr. Ailes was 46 years old and could work nearly 24/7 so long as we brought him several buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken (regular receipt) during the day. One thing he could not do was sneak up on anybody… his pockets were always full of quarters. This was Roger’s third Presidential campaign and he feared our telephones were tapped by the Democrats. For important calls, he went down to 15th St NW and used a pay phone!

Mr. Ailes slept with a pen by his bed and would awaken in the middle of the night and scribble ideas for campaign themes and TV commercials. One morning, he told me he was flabbergasted. He had a great idea the night before, but could not read his own handwriting! So he carried the note around with him for a couple of days, trying to figure it out.

One night, he came to my Georgetown home for a pot roast dinner. Election day was near and I asked him what he was most proud of during the campaign. He then told, as TV commentator Paul Harvey would say,  ”the rest of the story.” Roger had written on that piece of paper in his bedroom, “Rocky Squirrel ” (best friend to the cartoon moose, Bullwinkle), “Jane Fonda” and “tank.” He felt the recently released video tape of the Governor of Massachusetts wearing a leather tank helmet, at the controls of a bopping and weaving tank, was the greatest juxtaposition since the American public was treated to the Hollywood actress Jane Fonda leaning against an anti-aircraft gun in Hanoi. So, he created the now famous “Dukakis in the tank ” TV ad, making fun of a candidate who had opposed every weapons system since the slingshot!

Though I do not know of Roger Ailes’s personal life nor have knowledge of the harassment accusations, I do respect his political mind. I wish Mr. Murdoch well with his decision to terminate Mr. Ailes, but he should first consider what happened to George Herbert Walker Bush when he tried to win re-election without Roger Ailes in 1992. (Roger was offered a post, but declined) Bush and Quayle lost to Clinton and Gore.
So, Fox News will celebrate it’s 20th birthday in October without Mr.  Ailes, the man who changed the contours of U.S. Presidential campaigns. Perhaps November will be Mr. Ailes final come-from-behind Presidential victory. After all, he brokered the Megyn Kelly truce with Donald Trump. Perhaps the big guy still has a few quarters in his pocket and a few ideas in his sleep. I suggest Donald Trump be ready to accept pay phone calls and keep KFC on his speed dial.

NOTE:   Lee McNutt is graduate of Vanderbilt University. He worked the Reagan White House in the Office of Privatization and on the 1998 Bush Quayle Campaign and on the 1988-89 Presidential Transition Team. The Silicon Valley Growth Syndicate has investments in 65 tech startups.

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