Original Link: http://www.esquire.com/print-this/roger-ailes-0211-3
By Tom Junod
Today, here at Esquire — and only at Esquire, because only Esquire has the guts to tell you this story — we're going to tell you about a man you need to know a little better, maybe a lot better: a man named Roger Ailes. Maybe you've heard of Mr. Ailes. As the chairman and CEO of a well financed and admittedly antigovernment organization called Fox News, he made a reported $23 million in 2009, which, to do the math, was not just more money than you earned, it was more money than everyone related to you earned, combined, even if you count the sudden windfall that came your aunt Ida's way after she got five out of six in Powerball. Nice work if you can get it, Mr. Ailes — especially when that "work" consisted of nothing but advancing your own agenda at the expense of the president of the United States of America during a time of war. But that $23 million, outrageous as it sounds, is chump change next to the almost $1 billion in profits that Fox News — and even Mr. Ailes's most ardent defenders admit that he is Fox News — earned Ailes's foreign-born boss, Rupert Murdoch, aka "Koala Kong," in honor of the Australian heritage he long ago rejected in favor of more convenient American citizenship. So yes, you might have heard of Roger Eugene Ailes, because you read the newspapers, you read books, you stay informed (despite what members in good standing of the East Coast media elite like, well, oh, like Roger Ailes might say about you), but how much do you really know about him? For forty years, he has stood astride the intertwined worlds of media and politics like a veritable colossus, making sure the worlds of media and politics stay intertwined, the better to control them. He has used his considerable powers of persuasion to persuade us to elect presidents, and, if they're not following the "Ailes Agenda," to turn against them. At seventy years of age, when most hardworking American seniors have had enough of the rat race and are looking forward to spending some more quality time with the grandkids, Roger Ailes is at the height, perhaps the apogee, maybe even — some say — the very zenith of his power. Indeed, with most of the potential Republican candidates for president in 2012 on his payroll, he may be said to be just getting started. Hmmm. Maybe we don't know this Roger Ailes as well as we think we do. Maybe we don't know him very well at all, which is, of course, just the way he likes it.
"I know what you're going to write about me," Roger Ailes says. "I can pretty much pick the words for you. Paranoid, right-wing, fat. I love that. I'm the only guy in America who's fat."
No, Mr. Ailes, you're wrong. You're not the only fat man in America. And we're not going to call you fat, either. Or bald. Or old. First of all, Esquire is completely unbiased, and beholden to no agendas. Second, we're not going to call you any names. We're not going to hurt your feelings, because in our extensive and exclusive investigation, we've found that you actually have them. You're a sensitive guy, Mr. Ailes. You're vulnerable. Indeed, for a guy who attributes his power to the power of not caring what people think about him, you really care what people think about you. You even care what bloggers think about you. You not only read the blog posts that your wife sends you, you remember what they say. And so, when you yourself are accused of unfairness, you'll say, "Well, the Huffington Post says I'm a J. Edgar Hoover look-alike with a face like a clenched fist. Keith Olbermann calls me the worst person in the world. How is that fair?" And then you go out and crush them.
You are particularly sensitive about your weight. "It's not that I eat too much," you say. "It's that I can't move." Is this just another example of the "Ailes spin"? It is not. In the course of its exclusive, intensive, and above all unbiased investigation, Esquire has learned many surprising things about Roger Ailes. One is that he claims to have discovered the openly socialist folksinger Buffy Sainte-Marie. Another is that his body has been wrecked by arthritis. The man who has challenged the world to a fight turns out to be a man who can't, by his own admission, walk two city blocks. Even in his office, he's too stiff to unwrinkle himself, walks like he's learning to ice-skate, wears rubber-soled shoes, props up his feet on the nearest low table as soon as he sits down, bites his lower lip when he's in pain (or angry), strains and sweats, loosens his tie and unbuttons his collar, wears a tie bar, pops breath mints, and is supposed to be proud of his arms, which look like cinder blocks under his wrinkled suit jacket. He has thin lips, a long nose, hair that curls over his collar, and small hands and feet, all of which conspire to give his appearance a certain aristocratic delicacy, as if his bulk were not earned but rather imposed. His eyes are gray, and, because they are framed by extensive and almost geological gray circles, often look black. They are the only things about his physical presence that are true to his reputation for menace.
So no, Mr. Ailes: We're not going to call you fat. But paranoid? You have seven TV screens in your office. Six are on your wall and allow you to watch what's being broadcast by Fox or its competitors. The seventh is on your desk, and the screen on your desk shows nothing but the live feed from the security cameras in your building. Beyond that, your private-security apparatus is both extensive and expensive, and your office itself is a study in contrasts. On the one hand, you sit at the very heart of the world that you have made — a world of information and power, of information as power — and all you have to do to reach virtually any of the world's most powerful people is pick up a phone. On the other, you communicate by means so personal and old-fashioned, they would make Tony Soprano comfortable. Your door opens, and your assistant approaches, her arm extended and her fingertips bracketing a yellow Post-it note. You read the note and nod; she leaves. "Rupert," you say, indicating that your down-under overlord is waiting outside. "He comes down here a lot, because I'm the only one of his executives who's not crawling up his leg."
Now, when you talk to Roger Ailes, he will inevitably tell you a few things. One is that he's a simple man. Another is that he's from Warren, Ohio. Another is that he owes his success to the fact that he's a simple man from Warren, Ohio. Another is that he knows you — the American viewer. Another is that he knows you because he is like you — "an average guy from flyover country." And yet another is that because he is like you, he likes you, and thinks that America is a "pretty good country" that we ought to think twice about blaming for the world's problems.
Okay, Mr. Ailes, we get it. You don't have to tell Esquire that America is the greatest country in the world. And there's no doubt you have a talent for giving American audiences television news that they want to watch. But if you're such an average guy, can you please tell us what happened to your BlackBerry?
Oh, you don't have one, do you?
We didn't think so.
Of course, a lot of average Americans do have BlackBerrys, or something like them — "smartphones," they're called. And a lot of Americans can be depended upon to handle their BlackBerrys responsibly, to be "smart" with their "smartphones." Not Roger Ailes. For Roger Ailes, having a BlackBerry was a very big deal — or, to be more precise, a very small one. You see, while most of us average Americans are very happy with our BlackBerrys, our iPhones, and our Androids — happy for the chance to stay "connected" with our loved ones when we're out there trying to make ends meet — Roger Ailes was not. Roger Ailes admits that he thought his BlackBerry was too ... small for a man of his size and stature. Roger Ailes thought that his BlackBerry made him look ... ridiculous. Indeed, when Roger Ailes sees one of his few peers in the rarefied world of media, business, or politics using a BlackBerry, he tells him to ... get rid of it, adding, "You have executives for that." Thanks, Mr. Ailes. Thanks for the tip. The next time one of our readers uses his BlackBerry to receive a photograph of his daughter in the school play he had to miss because he's out there making ends meet, we'll remind him: "You have executives for that." And we'll remind him of the reason that you gave us for giving up your BlackBerry in the first place: You don't get paid to think about some little device you have to work with your thumbs. You get paid to think about winning. And that's what you spend all day doing at Fox News: "thinking of ways to win."
But the story of Roger Ailes's BlackBerry doesn't end there, with his admission that he is an obsessively competitive man. Esquire has found out — from Roger Ailes himself — that he didn't give up his BlackBerry simply because it was beneath him. No, he lost it because he wasn't above it — wasn't above the temptation to use it to get into fights with average Americans. Is Roger Ailes, as he likes to think of himself, a "perfect target"? To be fair — and Esquire strives to be never less than fair — he is. Of course he is: He's one of the most powerful media executives in the history of the world, if not the universe. People are going to come at him, and they might write him an intemperate e-mail once in a while. But think of it: You're Roger Ailes, one of the most powerful media executives in the history of the world, if not the universe. Your BlackBerry "pings" you with an intemperate e-mail from one of your fellow Americans, telling you that he's going to catch a plane from the heartland of our great homeland so he can find you among the rich and powerful there in New York City and kick your big Aeron-seated posterior. Would you answer him? Probably not — you would probably figure that the fellow had a bad day trying to make ends meet and leave it at that. Would you threaten the fellow back? Would you tell your fellow American that if he buys a ticket to New York City and tries to come up to see you at your well-guarded domicile in midtown Manhattan — and here we quote — "he shouldn't bother buying a return ticket because he'll never make it back home"? No, you wouldn't, because you're an American, and Americans don't threaten other Americans exercising the sacred right of free speech, no matter how intemperate they might be. But Roger Ailes would. Roger Ailes did. He did it time and again, fighting fire with fire, intemperately answering every intemperate e-mail that came his way with no insult or complaint beneath his notice, until his public-relations staff, fearing that the Ailesian e-mails might become public and that their boss was having too much fun, concluded that maybe giving a man like Roger Ailes a BlackBerry wasn't such a good idea after all.
So who is this … Roger Ailes, if he's not who he says he is — if he's not an average American? Well, the short answer is this: He is not only a man who has spent his entire life thinking of ways to win; he is a man who has spent his entire life winning. Nothing wrong with that, of course: America loves a winner. But let's be honest here: We're all average Americans. Does any of us win all the time? Of course not, or else we wouldn't be average. But Roger Ailes does. And so, Mr. Ailes, Esquire has a question, on behalf of other average Americans: What kind of man wins all the time? What kind of man gives his country, in roughly this order, Mike Douglas, Richard Nixon, Tom Snyder, Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America," the Willie Horton ad, the ad in which Michael Dukakis rides around in a tank and looks like a chipmunk, the presidency of George H. W. Bush, CNBC, Fox News (upstart-insurgent edition), Fox News (airwaves-of-the-empire edition), Fox News ("Obama sux" edition), and Fox News (Tea Party edition)? More pointedly, what kind of man figures out at age twenty-seven how to use television to legitimize Richard Nixon and then at age seventy to legitimize Sarah Palin?
Wait. You didn't know that it was Roger Ailes who gave us Richard Nixon? Well, he did. And, more important, Richard Nixon gave America Roger Ailes. Put it this way: When Richard Nixon met Roger Ailes in 1967, Nixon was still the sweaty, shifty-eyed, self-pitying, petulant, paranoid perpetual candidate whom Americans instinctively mistrusted. And Roger Ailes was still the prodigy who'd started with The Mike Douglas Show — the first nationally syndicated daytime television talk show — when he was right out of Ohio University and was executive producer by the time he was twenty-five. Roger Ailes was still a card-carrying member of the notoriously liberal entertainment industry, still a guy who liked to go to clubs and listen to "folksingers" such as José Feliciano and Buffy Sainte-Marie and then put them on television, so American housewives could have their consciousness raised and realize that they hated their husbands. And it was as entertainment that Roger Ailes booked Richard Nixon on The Mike Douglas Show, along with "Little Egypt," a burlesque star who raised more than consciousnesses ... and who made American husbands realize that they hated their wives. Well, as Mr. Ailes tells it, even admitted pornographers have some scruples, so instead of making Richard Nixon wait in the same greenroom as Little Egypt, he asked the candidate back to his office. "It's a shame a man has to use gimmicks like this to get elected," Mr. Nixon is supposed to have remarked to Mr. Ailes. "Television is not a gimmick, and if you think it is, you'll lose again," Mr. Ailes is supposed to have remarked to Mr. Nixon. And there the modern conservative movement — not the ideological entity but the telegenic one — was born.
You see, when Richard met Roger, it was not just a meeting of men; it was a meeting of need. It was a meeting of what Roger Ailes calls "stuff." As in: "If Richard Nixon was alive today, he'd be on the couch with Oprah, talking about how he was poor, his brother died, his mother didn't love him, and his father beat the shit out of him. And everybody would say, Oh, poor guy, he's doing the best he can. See, every human being has stuff — stuff they have to carry around, stuff they have to deal with. And Richard Nixon had a lot of stuff. He did the best he could with it, but it got him in the end. Still, he did a lot of good things as president." Yes, Roger Ailes is instinctively alert to people's stuff — perhaps because he's as surprisingly empathetic as he is sensitive, and perhaps because it allows him an all-important sense of advantage. But is he aware of his own? He began working for Richard Nixon a few months after he met him on the show. He began working to get Richard Nixon elected "by television," as he says, instead of in spite of it. He disavows his political commitment to Nixon by saying that he never worked in the White House and was more interested in the political potential of TV than he was in politics itself — "I wasn't worried about the message. I was worried about the backlighting." And a year later Richard Nixon was still sweaty, still shifty-eyed, still petulant, still paranoid, and still instinctively mistrusted by most Americans. The only difference was that thanks to Roger Ailes, he was president.
As for Mr. Ailes, he was free to pursue what he was really interested in: raw power. But it was a new kind of power, based on the insight that came to him through his own "stuff." Before the arrival of Roger Ailes, television was thought to be a unifying medium — the "electronic hearth." Mr. Ailes knew better. Mr. Ailes knew that it was the fire itself. Mr. Ailes knew that the television screen in each American home was nothing less than a battleground, and he who controlled it controlled America, no matter what the message. He didn't even have to be overtly political, because television was by definition a political medium. Roger Ailes could win ... if the idea of a unified America lost. He could win ... if his own subversive vision of America was realized. He could win ... if American life became an endless, entrenched, and above all electronic argument. And you know what?
He did win.
Did you hear that, Mr. Ailes?
You're absolutely right when you say that the nature of your achievement isn't political, because you've done nothing less than change the game ... the conversation ... the very nature of public discourse in these, the United States of America. Politics? For a man like you, politics are just a way of keeping score. And so, as a measure of your triumph, we ask only the question that you would ask of a man as radical, as subversive, as much of a mischief-making provocateur as yourself. On Fox News, your reporters and opinionists would never simply ask if you hate America. They would never give you that chance. And so, as the only suitable tribute to how much you've changed us, we can only ask the question as you would ask it:
Why does Roger Ailes hate America?
Okay, come to think of it, there was one time Roger Ailes lost. Of course, he was a good sport about it, no big deal, all's fair in love and war and the rarefied world of the media elites.
No, Mr. Ailes wasn't a good loser. Was he the kid who loses and takes his marbles home? Well, not exactly. More like the kid who takes his marbles, sells them to Russian spies, then works with the Russian government to deliver a thermonuclear device straight to your house.
In this case, though, it wasn't the Russians who were interested in what Mr. Ailes was selling. It was the Australian oligarch Rupert Murdoch. Talk about stuff meeting stuff! On the one hand: the cunning antipodean entrepreneur who is to "global domination" as Tiger Woods is to "be sure to tip your waitress." On the other: Roger Ailes, who had just lost out to the very media elite he'd always despised and distrusted.
This was 1996, almost thirty years after Roger Ailes helped Richard Nixon win the presidency. He was fifty-five and undergoing a midlife crisis. He was at NBC, where he had turned CNBC from a news channel into a highly successful talk-show circus, complete with dancing bears (and bulls), and where he had an unsuccessful channel of televised talk shows called America's Talking. (Name of one of the shows he programmed: Am I Nuts?)
Now NBC was planning to turn America's Talking into MSNBC, a twenty-four-hour news channel to compete with CNN. MSNBC? With characteristic delicacy, Ailes told NBC News that it "sounded like a disease." But still he wanted it. Oh, how he wanted it. See, he had some ideas about cable. NBC was thinking along the lines of extending its network news to cable — all Brokaw, all the time. Roger Ailes was thinking more along the lines of "divide and conquer." What Mr. Ailes understood about the political nature of television back in 1968 he would be able to put into practice on cable television thirty years later. "Roger got cable," says Phil Griffin, the president of MSNBC. "Everybody else learned it, studying Roger. Well, maybe not CNN. CNN still doesn't get it. But Roger got it from day one."
What did he get? Well, he got what he was temperamentally equipped to get: that cable news would be different from broadcast news. That cable news didn't have to please all Americans. That a committed audience was better than a broad one. And that the best audience of all was one you had all to yourself — one that had not only been ignored, but one that felt ignored.
He pitched that idea to NBC.
NBC's answer: "Are you nuts?"
So he quit, and he called Rupert Murdoch. The cunning international media tycoon asked him the question that would come to define Fox News, and so our era: "Can you build me a network that can beat CNN?"
Listen again, folks: beat CNN, an American company. Not "compete with." And certainly not "play nice with."
And this is what Roger Ailes remembers answering: "Yes, if you take away whoever stands in the way of my complete control and get me distribution. I can beat CNN because CNN has never had any competition and won't know what to do. And MSNBC will ignore me, because they're arrogant. And if they ignore me for two years, I'll destroy them."
So Roger Ailes began studying CNN. Studying the screen, searching for weaknesses.
He found two: Boring. Biased.
He took out a notepad and wrote, "Fair and balanced" and "We report. You decide."
And here we are today, boys and girls. It's Mr. Ailes's world. We just get spun in it. Is Fox News "fair and balanced"? Doesn't matter. Because fair and balanced is not a description of Fox News; it's an attack on everyone else. And what really makes Fox News different from other respectable news organizations is that its original charge, from the Emperor of the Outback, was neither "report" nor even "decide." It was "win."
"Well, winning is a lot more interesting than the other alternative," Mr. Ailes said recently, when asked by Esquire to justify his consuming need to win at every turn, damn the consequences. Oh, come on, Mr. Ailes. Esquire has no ax to grind and will bend over backward to give you a fair shake. But you know as well as we do: That's just spin. You told us yourself: You just can't help yourself. You told us yourself that when you saw MSNBC's new advertising campaign, Lean Forward, you said, "Lean? They paid Spike Lee $3 million for 'Lean'? What kind of word is that? Isn't that their problem — that they're leaning? Didn't anybody say, What about 'move'?"
And so once again, you took out your pad, wrote down "Move For-ward," and in four hours had your own campaign on the air for $1,500.
Pretty clever, Mr. Ailes. You win again. You must be proud of yourself. We wonder if you'll still be proud when you do the math and figure out what was lost when you did an entire ad campaign for fifteen hundred clams instead of three million:
There's a professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism by the name of Dick Wald. Yeah, yeah, we know — Roger Ailes doesn't give a CNN ratings share about what some professor at Columbia journalism school has to say. Indeed, whenever he's asked what qualifies him to be the head of a major television-news network, he gives the same answer: "I dug ditches for a living, there are no parties that I want to go to, and I didn't go to Columbia journalism school." But Professor Wald is no mere don, no mere pointy-headed practitioner of the liberal arts. He used to be the president of NBC News. He likes Roger Ailes. And if you ask him the secret of Mr. Ailes's success, he'll say it's pretty simple: "Roger, in many ways, is just more competent. He just does it better. The anchors are better. The crispness of the reporting is better. The anchors don't interrupt, the shows move along, and the point of view is clear. It's just a good product. Roger found an area in which he could reach each audience member individually. That's the big difference between Fox and CNN."
Then he adds this, about the difficulty of taking on Roger Ailes: "You can't beat Roger fighting on territory he's left behind."
Pretty astute for a professor. Indeed, it might be the most astute thing Esquire's ever heard on the subject of Mr. Ailes, because it explains why he drives his opponents absolutely nuts. The pundits, the professors, the professional journalists, the left-wingers, the tree huggers, the liberal blogosphere, President Obama — they all keep trying to catch him on violations of rules that they follow and he doesn't. "Frankly, Roger doesn't give a shit," says an associate. "He just doesn't have the governor that other media executives have. He does things they would never do, says things they would never say."
And recently Roger Ailes gave us a demonstration of precisely what the associate — and Professor Wald — might mean.
It was Veteran's Day, and he was watching TV in his office on the second floor of the News Corp. building in New York City. He does a lot of that. Yes, that's right: Roger Ailes likes to watch. He watches TV, he studies TV, mostly with the sound off, so that he can observe one of the rules he does follow — if someone's doing something to make you turn the sound on, then they're doing something interesting. On a wall in his office, there are screens broadcasting Fox News and Fox Business Network, as well as CNN, HLN, MSNBC, and CNBC. He watches them all, from the corner of his eye, and if you give him three seconds, he'll give you the world ... a world of criticism for each one, including his own. That's because he knows how to follow his own eye — show Roger Ailes a television screen, he'll tell you what works, what doesn't, and how to make it better. "I tell my people that if they want to be artists of television, the screen is their canvas, but they have to repaint it every three seconds." Then he said: "Look at all those screens. Where does your eye go?"
You really want to know the truth, Mr. Ailes?
We don't know about you, but Esquire's eye goes to the screen featuring your creamy redhead, Jenna Lee.
Sure, that's a Fox screen, and so you win again. But — if you don't mind our saying so — it didn't exactly require an advanced degree in TV geniusology to see the potential of Ms. Jenna Lee.
Wait — it did? "Well, she didn't look anything like she looks now when she came here. She'd just completed Columbia journalism school, and she wanted to be a writer. But I met with her and sent her down to hair and makeup to clean her up a little. When she came back, I took a look at her and said, 'What would you think of going on air?' I had to work with her a little to bring her pitch down, and now she's going to be a big star. And she wanted to be a writer."
So that's how it's done — that's how Fox has become the Schwab's drugstore for right-wing mean girls. But if you listen to Mr. Ailes, it's not simply a matter of beauty; it's a matter of authenticity. "Look at the girl over there on HLN. African-American. Attractive, though she needs a haircut. And she doesn't know how to dress — her dress is too busy, look what it's doing to the screen. And they use her too much. But she has an interesting look. Look at the difference between her and the anchor. She's just being herself. She's not trying to do anything. She's just trying to tell him a story. That's interesting. He's trying to be an anchor. He's trying to project authority. It's always more interesting watching people be who they are than it is watching people try to be who they are not.
"Now look at Megyn."
By "Megyn," he means, of course, Fox fox Megyn Kelly, the meanest of the mean girls, the heaving, sumptuous blond with the wide-set eyes, the briskly triangular chin, and the porno sneer she directs at ill-fated liberal guests. Roger Ailes loves Megyn Kelly (in a fatherly way, of course): "She's a host. For one thing, she's fearless — she'd crawl down a smokestack for a story. But look at the way she moves. She'd move like that if she was arguing at the dinner table. Very natural. O'Reilly's the same way. He's an Irishman who likes to argue. He'd do it anywhere. We just found a way for him to do it on TV."
Now, if you talk to some other network people, they'll tell you that Roger's not exactly the first person to figure out that people would rather look at pretty girls reading the news than plain ones. "Roger's just willing to go further than anyone else," one industry insider says. "He takes the obvious further than anyone else. Everybody else goes halfway, and they wind up looking foolish." Roger, however, has a different take. He is able to hire authentic talent — that is, talent who have the ability to appear authentic in front of a camera — because he himself is authentic. "I'm not trying to be anyone," he says. "You know why other executives always hire phonies? Because they're phonies. They hire phonies because they like phonies. They're comfortable with them." It's the same reason they all hire left-wingers — "because they are left-wingers.
"Look," he said, "it's Veteran's Day, and we're the only ones doing anything about it. So maybe people like us because we like veterans. Those other networks probably had to have a meeting about it. They probably worried that if they were pro-veteran, people would think they were pro-war." See, that's the difference: Fox is pro-veteran and the other networks are ... well, they're not even pro-choice. "They say they're pro-choice. They're proabortion! Some of the talent who come to Fox come here because the other networks require them to be proabortion."
Then he told a story of triumph, about wearing a flag pin to an event at New York's Museum of Television & Radio after 9/11 and being accosted by none other than Morley Safer and "that asshole Dick Wald" for giving up his journalistic objectivity. They really got on him, asking how he could possibly be fair and balanced sporting a flag pin, until finally he'd had enough: " 'Look,' I said, 'I might be a little squishy about killing babies. But I'm pro-choice about flag pins!' "
O-kay ... and so Esquire called Dick Wald afterward for comment. "I remember it a little differently," he said. "We weren't asking whether Roger had a right to wear a flag pin. I would never do that. What we were talking about, if I remember correctly, was whether anchors should wear flag pins. I seem to remember something about Roger asking his anchors to wear flag pins... ."
And then we heard it. Do you? Listen closely. Yes ... that's the terrible sound of someone trying to beat Roger Ailes on territory Roger has long ago left behind.
There is a restaurant in New York City called Michael's. If you haven't heard about it, don't worry — you have a life. You're out there trying to make ends meet. You have more important things to worry about than what kind of table you get at Michael's compared with what kind of table your competitor at another network or at another newspaper or another magazine gets. You have more to worry about than your standing amongst the media elite. Because that's who goes to Michael's. It is not the kind of place an average American goes to. It is not even the kind of place an average New Yorker goes to. It is a clubhouse for media people and for only media people — for exactly the people whose contempt Roger Ailes regards as an inspiration and a reward for a job well done.
Does Roger Ailes have a table at Michael's?
Of course he does. He has the best table at Michael's. He goes there for lunch, and this is how one of his guests describes the experience of eating with him: "You'll be sitting at his table at Michael's, and he'll grouse about not getting any respect and being an outsider while everybody is lining up to kiss his ring. And you'll be like, Roger, you're at Michael's, you're at the best table — what more do you want?"
Is Roger Ailes a cynical man? Not at all. He really believes the things he says. He really believes that he is an average American. He really believes that he is looked down upon by those who admire and fear him. He really believes that he is the only man in America who can be called fat with impunity. He really believes that his power is rooted in his disregard for what people think of him. He really believes that he is the only genuine person in the media business. He really believes that Fox is fair and balanced. He really believes that his success has very little to do with politics and very much to do with television. He really believes — despite his subsequent apologies — that the people who fired poor Juan Williams from NPR are Nazis. He really believes that he seeks out liberal voices as ardently as he seeks out conservative ones. He really believes that until his arthritis immobilized him, he could always have gone back to digging ditches for a living. He really believes that despite being immobilized by arthritis, he could handle himself if someone challenged him to a fight, and that whoever comes to New York to fight him shouldn't bother buying a plane ticket home.
Okay, then: Is Roger Ailes crazy? Now that's a good question ... because Roger Ailes believes that you are — or, at the very least, that you think you are. It's his grand theory of human behavior. "Look," he says, "there isn't a day that goes by that everybody doesn't say to themselves, 'Am I nuts?' They do it in their heads. People think that they're nuts." He has such confidence in the validity of this theory that he created a show for his America's Talking network called exactly that — Am I Nuts? He's so confident that he built Fox News as a twenty-four-hour Am I Nuts? for American conservatives. See, what Roger Ailes has done at Fox is find a way to mainstream extremity for fun and, of course, for profit. He's found out that people need the validating experience of extremity in the same way that he does. And he takes extreme positions and says extreme things because he needs to, because they allow him to make the choice that's at the heart of his power.
"It would be a lie to say that I don't care what people say about me," he says. "Every human being cares unless they're nuts. Am I nuts? But you can't allow that to override your mission. You cannot allow whether someone likes you or not to alter your course of action. Sometimes I think, Sure, that hurts my feelings. But it's not so important that I will adjust what I'm doing because someone is not going to like me."
One day, some bullies beat up Roger Ailes as he walked home from school. His father hated to see him bruised and bloodied, but he didn't want to fight his son's battles for him, so he taught him how to fight, and sent him back to school with the words, "Remember, son, for them it's a fight, for you it's life and death."
You have heard this story before. You might have even told this story before, because it's an average American story, and you, the Esquire reader, are an average American. Certainly, you wouldn't be surprised to hear a man like Roger Ailes tell it, because it's exactly the kind of story powerful men tell to burnish their myths at their coveted tables at Michael's. But what if Roger Ailes is a powerful man because he really is different from other powerful men? What if Roger Ailes really does have to win every fight because every fight is a matter of life and death? So listen again to an average American story from an average American childhood, and ask if Roger Ailes is an average American after all:
When he was a baby, he fell out of his crib. He split his lip and he bled. A lot of babies do the same thing. But Roger kept on bleeding. Remember, this was seventy years ago. There was hardly anything known about hemophilia back then. And there was certainly not much that could be done about it, except transfusions of whole blood. "Well, you died. That's what you knew about it. I was told many times I wasn't going to make it."
The closest he came to dying was when he was seven or eight. He bit his tongue when he jumped off the roof of the garage. His mouth filled with blood and the blood would not stop, the blood soaked the sheets of his bed, and he heard the doctor tell his father that there was nothing he could do. Roger Ailes was going to bleed out through his tongue. But his father was a fighter; that is, he got into fights, and Roger admired him for it. Now he fought for his son's life. He picked Roger up, swaddled in bloody bedclothes, and drove him to the Cleveland Clinic with a police escort. At the factory where he worked, the old man tracked down everybody who had type-O-positive blood, and now he called upon all of them to come to Cleveland for his son. They did, and Roger can still remember their names, Dirtyneck Watson and the rest, men filthy from work who lined up one after another to give Roger their blood, arm to arm. " 'Well, son, you have a lot of blue-collar blood in you, never forget that,' my father said after I got through it, and I never have. A lot of what we do at Fox is blue-collar stuff."
But he was never that kid, not really. He couldn't be. The disease he had was the Royal Disease, the disease of Queen Victoria's progeny, a disease considered effete, a mortal taint. He used to have to sit on a pillow at school. He wasn't able to go out at recess. And so one day he asked his parents to let him walk to school, like the other kids, and they let him. "And some guys beat me up. I went home a little beat up and my dad, I saw tears in his eyes for the first time. I'd never seen it. And he said, 'That's never going to happen to you again.' He taught me how to fight. And he told me to stay away from any fight that I could. 'But if you have no options, then remember, son, for them it's a fight. For you, it's life and death.' "
Everybody bleeds. We bleed all the time. We bleed when we move, we bleed when we bump into things. But for many years — there wasn't much that could be done for hemophilia until the sixties — Roger kept on bleeding. That's why he has such bad arthritis: because blood collects in the joints and ruins them. And that's why he labors under the judgment of his bulk and finds it so deeply unfair when people call him fat. Because he can't move. And that's why he found a way to fight so many of his life-and-death battles through the television screen: It was his way of fighting the kids he saw playing outside through the window. And that's why he's so sensitive and so instinctively alert to other people's stuff ... why one day, when he was talking about the need for his anchors to have warmth, and the subject of President Obama's warmth problem came up, he responded quickly, instantly, "Well, maybe if your father left you when you were two, your stepfather left you when you were four, and your mother was out of your life when you were ten, you wouldn't be warm, either."
So what kind of man has to win all the time? The kind of man whose wounds are always fresh.
So what happens when a man like ... Roger Ailes comes to America and tries to fit in with average Americans? Well, ask your fellow Americans in Putnam County, New York — they know. Of course, to hear Roger Ailes tell it, he is no different from anyone else. He has a wife and a kid. He's trying to protect them. He's trying to give them a legacy. He also probably needed some extra space — a second home where he could mount George Soros's head on his wall. So, like any average American, Roger Ailes bought some land and started working on that dream house — that dream mansion, really — about an hour and a half north of Manhattan, in the sleepy Hudson River Valley village of Garrison, in the township of Philipstown, in the county of Putnam. It's Mr. Ailes's kind of place — the kind of place with history (Benedict Arnold slept there); a view, across the river, of West Point (where Mr. Ailes occasionally lectures on media and the military); a volunteer fire department (where he likes to hang out); and one of the highest per capita incomes in the United States. He thought of retiring there with his wife and son. Maybe writing his memoirs so his son wouldn't have to learn about his father by reading his obituary in The New York Times.
Of course, the taxes were too high for Mr. Ailes's taste, and he wanted to have some input into that. So, like any other average American, he bought a couple of newspapers. Bought them for his wife, really, to give her something to do, and for his son, to give the boy a legacy. And then, because he's concerned about his family's safety, and because the problem with America is that there are actually Americans there, he started buying all the houses around him and leaving them empty. Million dollars here, million dollars there, what the hell, it's a good investment. And then he found out that there was actually something called zoning up there, with all sorts of restrictive covenants and all sorts of ways for the government to take land from average Americans out there trying to make ends meet. And then he found out that the town of Philipstown has been working nine years — "twice as long as World War II!" — on something called a comprehensive zoning agreement. Thing's a hundred pages long. The Constitution's only thirty-five! It's like the health-care bill. No one can read it, no one can understand it. There's language in the damned thing that suggests that if you build a fence, you need to put openings in it so wildlife can pass through and an environmental inspector can come on your property. Roger wasn't having it. "I said, I would suggest that you call first, because otherwise I'll shoot him and my dog will eat him." But that's Roger Ailes. "I can fight. The rest of the people up there were having this thing shoved down their throats, and they were terrified." So he hired a lawyer, and then made the lawyer available, gratis, to anyone who wanted to challenge the zoning agreement. And then he got the paper involved, Fox News style. And then suddenly, Roger Ailes really had come to America. He'd come to one small town in America in precisely the way he had come to the rest of the country. "I had no idea there was any intrigue up there when I moved there. I thought this was a normal, nice community. All of a sudden, we find out, holy shit. It reminds me of the Ia Drang Valley in Vietnam. Remember? In '65, they fly the air cavalry to this field, and they're surrounded by two thousand North Vietnamese troops that are on vacation in an ammo dump. So that's what happened to me. I landed in the Ia Drang Valley. All of a sudden, I got people saying, Oh, my God, Roger Ailes from Fox News is in town. Oh, my God ... "
Was he suffering from a flashback from his days in 'Nam? He couldn't have been — he never went to 'Nam because of his bleeding. But he dreamed of going and seeing what he was made of. Now they had him surrounded in Putnam Country. He had come to hang out with the volunteer fire department and have locals to the mansion for dinner. He had come to drive a car in the Fourth of July parade and to buy the township its fireworks. He had come to help people fight who couldn't fight on their own. Now, at a big zoning meeting last April, he brought along his lawyer to speak, and the town supervisor was telling his lawyer to sit down. The town supervisor wasn't letting Roger Ailes's lawyer speak! So Roger stood up and went to the microphone. "Civility," was the first word he uttered, but by this time the crowd in the high school gymnasium was either cheering him or cheering the town supervisor who was standing up to him. The people in the gym all knew one another; many of them had gone to school together. But now they were divided, as Roger Ailes stood in the middle of them, quoting George Washington and lecturing on the economy and the Constitution. And you know what? He won again. The town supervisor made the changes in the comprehensive zoning agreement that Roger Ailes wanted, although it hasn't passed yet. If it does — if it passes the way the town supervisor says he wants it to pass — then the town supervisor is a "man of honor," and Roger will go back to his average American life.
And if it doesn't?
"Then," Mr. Ailes says, "there will be war."
In the course of its exclusive and unbiased exploration of Roger Ailes, Esquire had several meetings with him. At the end of the first, he said something that was, like much of what he had to say, seemingly offhand but in the end deeply revealing. It was on a subject he knows well — the subject of people's stuff. He was talking about President Obama's stuff. He was saying that he could never underrate the importance of a person's formative experiences in who that person turned out to be. Your Esquire correspondent said that he, as an adoptive parent, was well aware of this. And Roger Ailes, knowing stuff when he hears it, said, "Yes, but your daughter loves you. And this is how you'll know: One day, something will scare her. She'll be scared, terrified, and she'll look to you for protection. And that's how you'll know she loves you."
Your Esquire correspondent was moved, as he often was in his dealings with Roger Ailes. It was a human moment, the kind that Mr. Ailes frequently offers and even insists on. But your Esquire correspondent couldn't help but also notice Mr. Ailes's conflation of love and fear, because it's one of the polarities that defines him and everything he has ever done. Victory and defeat. Weakness and strength. Love and fear. They are familiar to any viewer of Fox News, familiar to any resident who attended the April zoning meeting in Putnam County, familiar to his many friends and many enemies. They are his stuff, or the inevitable consequences of his stuff, and he can't help but see life in terms of them. He's an old dad. He was fifty-nine when his son was born. He has never loved anyone the way he loves his son, but he fears that his love has made him weak in a way he has never been; has made him soft in a way he has never been; has made him vulnerable in a way he has devoted his entire life to rising above. He even uses those words when describing his domestic and paternal happiness: "I have a weakness now. I have a soft spot."
And so he pleads for sympathy. Of all the remarkable aspects of Esquire's exclusive and unbiased exploration of Roger Ailes, this is the most remarkable, and the most surprising. He asked us that certain things not be written about him, because he has a son. Most of these things are unremarkable, and can be found in his Wikipedia entry. Nevertheless, he doesn't want his son to read them. He doesn't want his son to read them here. It is a deeply human request, and deeply manipulative. But that's what makes Roger Ailes who he is. He makes sure that you cannot deal with him without having to contend with him. Not simply at the level of his machinations but at the level of his stuff — at the level of his bruised and bloodied human core. But the human moment is the most dangerous. He asks for quarter when he has given none, asks for sympathy when he has offered none, asks for fairness when he has been "fair and balanced," asks for consideration while admitting that the only consideration he has ever shown is consideration for his mission, whatever that may be. And so, here, at the end of Esquire's brave, bold, exclusive, and utterly unbiased report on Roger Ailes, we'd like to ask him one last question.
You know, Mr. Ailes, there are television executives who are so convinced you get television news that they admit asking themselves before they make any decision, What would Roger do?
So that's the question we'd like to ask you now. You have asked Esquire to be sympathetic to your situation. You have asked for fairness. And yet you must have heard these same kinds of requests many times in your life; you must have heard these same pleas, so you, in your heart of hearts, must already know the answer to the question that only Esquire dares to ask:
What would Roger do?