Repeating A Sad History
Those observing the current national election drama have cited resemblances to the early 1970s. President Richard Nixon had won an easy re-election but was under pressure when two Washington Post reporters uncovered some strange goings-on in Nixon's efforts to develop negative information on his political enemies. What became the Watergate scandal began in 1972 with articles by young reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. Woodward is the same man who, 50 years later - just last month, revealed a series of tape recordings in which President Donald Trump contradicted in a glaring way all the public comments he has been making about the virus that has killed 200,000 Americans in the last six months.
Recall also that it was tape recordings that exposed Nixon's lies in 1970 and led to demands for his resignation in 1974. Then, as now, Nixon was surrounded by operatives who helped him try to hide information, leading to jail time for several of them.
There is another parallel that has not received attention, mainly because there aren't many people around who recall the circumstances, if they knew them in the first place. It goes back to 1968 and a man named Roger Ailes. Like Woodward and Bernstein, Ailes was just a young man who knew which way was up. Ailes, dead now three years, was the same man who decades later founded Fox News, which is the next thing to a public relations agency for President Trump.
The story begins in 1968 when Nixon appeared on Mike Douglas's afternoon show. Roger Ailes was Douglas's producer for the show, which operated out of Philadelphia. Nixon told Ailes he considered TV a gimmick, and Ailes told him he would never be president unless he learned to use TV. Nixon, impressed, hired Ailes as a television consultant to his campaign against Hubert Humphrey.
The result was a campaign that has been likened to the current election. Roger Ailes had Nixon appear largely before friendly audiences, with press conferences carefully staged with planted questions. He also embraced the race card in much the same way President Trump has. It was a cynical act. It was also successful. This was all chronicled in a number one bestselling book, "The Selling of the President 1968" by Joe McGinniss. McGinniss, only 26 at the time, had already developed a measure of journalistic con. He managed to gain Roger Ailes' trust, and the latter's amazing candor made him the star of the book. If you disliked Nixon before that book, you despised him afterward. Not so with Roger Ailes. If there was a hero in McGinniss’s book, it was Ailes. Ailes is portrayed as a driving, intelligent professional who ran the guts of the campaign, the television appearances, and provided moments of amusement with his irreverent and profane observations.
Here’s one example. Keep in mind that Ailes is describing the man he was working for in the campaign, who by then had been elected President of the United States:
“Let’s face it,” Ailes is quoted in the book, “a lot of people think Nixon is dull. Think he’s a bore, a pain in the ass. They look at him as the kind of kid who always carried a bookbag. Who was 42 years old the day he was born. They figure other kids got footballs for Christmas, Nixon got a briefcase and he loved it. He’d always have his homework done and he’d never let you copy.”
Ailes was understandably surprised when he saw such quotes in the book. We interviewed him for Philadelphia Magazine in 1970 shortly after the book appeared. He had never expected Joe McGinniss to quote him with such brutal fidelity.
“Oh, I laughed like hell the first time I read it,” he said. “But I was also shocked. I thought, that dirty bastard. He really screwed me.”
Ailes soon realized the book put him on the political map. Nixon hired him as a consultant and he and McGinniss became friends. Ailes actually coached the writer for his many TV appearances over the years. Thanks to the Nixon connection, Ailes over the next three decades established a reputation as a media expert and political consultant. That eventually led to the leadership of Fox News. It was the realization of a lifetime dream.
In the 1970 interview, he hinted at that goal. Even then it was known that Ailes considered the media too liberal. He only worked for Republicans and it was known for years that his goal was to balance what he considered Democratic dominance of the media by establishing a Republican network. The goal seemed far-fetched. There was no way major network icons such Walter Cronkite (CBS), Chet Huntley and David Brinkley (NBC), or Harry Reasoner (ABC) would have compromised their principles to be party to such a partisan enterprise.
Cable news changed all that. Ailes first established MSNBC, but left when he could not control news content. Then he founded Fox News and had the freedom he sought. The result today is a network which many think made Donald Trump president and without which he would not have a prayer of re-election. It has been reported that the network molds his views, for he watches it constantly and consults behind the scenes with its opinion makers, people paid to cater to the prejudices of the network's low IQ audience.
By the time he took over Fox, Ailes was going out of his way to portray television as the most honest medium, the one in which the essential man comes through. He liked the phrase “truth television,” and he insisted that President Nixon’s 1968 successful television campaign was "the real Nixon, expertly directed and counseled, of course.”
Power corrupts. The Roger Ailes we met in 1970 was an obviously ambitious young man, but his style could appear low key, that of a pipe-smoking, reflective man. He bore little resemblance to the bulbous, often obnoxious figure who almost 50 years later brought himself down with charges of sexual harassment from Fox's female employees. He died in Palm Beach in 2017, rich but shorn of the power he relished and abused.
But, he had succeeded in his life's goal. The evil that men do lives after them.