The year 1968 didn’t merely launch Richard Nixon’s presidency and eventual impeachment, it launched two storied media careers: Roger Ailes’, and Joe McGinniss’.
Hired to produce commercials for Richard Nixon, Ailes re-created a stiff and uncomfortable candidate as someone who, if not exactly likable, was at least tolerable. Ailes later led FOX News to cable news supremacy and, after his termination for sexual harassment, worked as a media consultant to Donald Trump. McGinniss made his name by covering the Nixon campaign up close and writing all about it. Almost 50-years later, The Selling of the President, 1968 is sui generis, a classic work of both journalism and politics. He would later move into a fraternity house in Raleigh, North Carolina with Jeffrey MacDonald, accused of murdering his wife and two daughters. That resulted in Fatal Vision, a classic true-crime account that embroiled McGinniss in litigation until nearly the day he died. In 2008 he famously moved next door to Sarah Palin while researching a book about her.
The following vignette from Selling captures neatly the amoral cynicism of Roger Ailes.
Ailes was in bad pain. And tired. And facing four hours of live direction in the evening. And — as the only member of Richard Nixon’s staff who would have thought to jump from an airplane the day before the biggest TV production of the campaign — feeling quite alone. He sat with his foot in an ice bucket in the control room through the afternoon, wishing he were done and in Grenada, where he was going on vacation later in the week.
Frank Shakespeare and Paul Keyes got to the studio at three o’clock. Shakespeare was in his standard dark suit, Keyes in a sky blue turtleneck. Ailes struggled out to meet them.
“Watch,” he said. “Now they’ll rip the whole thing up and start again.”
The first change Shakespeare made was moving Julie and Tricia up from the second row to the first. Ailes had wanted them in the second row to make them seem simply part of the crowd, but Shakespeare and Nixon wanted to greet them as he entered and it would be awkward to have him leaning over other girls.
“And then he’ll walk over,” Shakespeare was saying, “and when he greets them I think he should kiss them.”
“Well, I think kissing is a bit much,” Paul Keyes said.
“But if he comes over, he’s got to kiss them.”
“No, it looks stagy,” Keyes said. “We’ll have him go right to his chair.”
“Have him kiss one of the other broads,” Ailes said.
Ailes was one of the primary shapers of our modern politics, especially its obsession with appearances and dismissive indifference to truth. If you wonder why so few substantial men involve themselves in public affairs — Roger Ailes and the culture he created is much of the reason.