In the wake of his death Thursday at the age of 77, some veteran political consultants are remembering Roger Ailes for the influence he exerted on the nascent campaign industry years before launching Fox News.
“I knew Roger Ailes and liked him. He was kind to me early in my career. So I was deeply surprised by all the allegations at Fox,” GOP media consultant Mike Murphy tweeted after news of Ailes’ death broke. “[T]they didn't seem to reconcile with the funny, smart guy I knew in the late 80's and 90's. Nonetheless, RIP Roger.”
Allegations of sexual harassment led to Ailes’ ouster at Fox, permanently stained his legacy, and drove much of the online reaction to his death. Over the past year, Ailes faced a growing firestorm and legal scrutiny during his exit from the cable network’s chairmanship amid the scandal.
For better or worse, Ailes' influence shaped presidential campaigns and the early years of the political consulting industry. While working for George H. W. Bush during the 1988 cycle, Ailes produced the “Revolving Door” spot portraying Michael Dukakis as soft on crime. Meanwhile, Ailes’ co-leader of the Bush camp, manager Lee Atwater, is credited with the idea for the infamous “Willie Horton” ad.
Reacting to the news of Ailes’ death, Bush credited his media consultancy with being integral to getting him elected. “He wasn't perfect, but Roger Ailes was my friend & I loved him. Not sure I would have been President w/o his great talent, loyal help. RIP,” the former president tweeted.
Consultant Ed Rollins recalled hiring Ailes to head media for then-President Ronald Reaganˋs reelection campaign in 1984. “The ‘Morning Again in America’ campaign is still viewed as one of the best ad campaigns ever. That advertising campaign – without one single negative ad – contributed immensely to Reagan's 49-state victory,” said Rollins.
“Roger is also credited in that ’84 campaign with refocusing the president after a disastrous first debate to go on and easily win the last debate that led to a Reagan landslide.”
Others remembered a media consultant who didn’t suffer bellyaching. “We worked together on Senator Chuck Grassley’s first Senate race,” Tom Edmonds, a veteran GOP media consultant, told C&E. “I remember calling him from Iowa in the middle of the primary with a long litany of things that were going wrong. He yelled back, ‘Make lemonade,’ and hung up the phone.”
“He could be bombastic,” said Edmonds. “He broke some furniture and pounded a few tables in an AAPC board meeting, but no one ever called him on it because it was rooted in conviction.”
While many Democratic consultants acknowledged the impact Ailes had on media, they lamented having to grapple with the legacy of his "noise machine" for years to come.
Obama strategist David Axelrod tweeted: "For better or worse & the ignominious end 2 his reign at Fox News, the impact of Roger Ailes on American politics & media was indisputable."
In an interview with C&E in 1988, eight years before he helped launch Fox News, Ailes urged candidates to be quotable, warned against the plague of sameness afflicting campaign advertising and offered his take on what makes politicians tick.
“Egos are amazing things. When a guy has his ego hurt, he’s liable to jump into a fight he doesn’t need to have,” he said.
He also warned against doing battle with the press – a fight he said candidates almost never win.
“Candidates rarely win battles with the media, and unless you really know what you’re doing you should not tangle with them,” Ailes said. “The exception is when you know this is a search-and- destroy mission on the part of the media and your case is very strong, you are very articulate, you know what you’re trying to accomplish – and you have no alternatives.
“But you have to look at what you’re up against. And, boy, I’ll tell you, taking on the media is something I would never tell a candidate to do.”