What Roger Ailes Learned From Richard Nixon

tags: Nixon, Roger Ailes

David Greenberg is a professor of history and of journalism at Rutgers University and the author of “Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image” and “Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency.”

Related Link Roger Ailes Broke America, Then Died By Rick Perlstein 

In January 1970, President Richard Nixon’s top aide, H. R. Haldeman urged him to hire the young media consultant Roger Ailes as his television adviser. Nixon — who was obsessively image-conscious even for a politician — would often complain that he needed someone to advise him on “how I should stand, where the cameras will be” and even whether to hold the phone “with my right hand or my left hand.” Now, Haldeman reported in a memo, “I think Ailes is probably the best man for the job.” He was hired, as a consultant, at $100 a day (about $650 today).

It was three years earlier that Mr. Ailes, the impresario of Fox News who died yesterday at 77, had told Nixon on the set of “The Mike Douglas Show,” where he was a producer, that “television is not a gimmick.” During the 1968 campaign, Nixon began to rely on Mr. Ailes for advice on how to position the lighting and the lectern for his TV appearances, guidance on what clothes to wear and how to cut his hair, memos prescribing what his long-term media strategy should be and much more.

Mr. Ailes went on to help Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and countless other Republican politicians master the medium. But as significant as what Mr. Ailes taught Nixon is what Nixon taught Mr. Ailes: the political power of popular resentment against a liberal cultural elite.

Ever since his first race for Congress in 1946, Nixon had succeeded in politics by portraying himself as the voice of the “forgotten Americans,” the ordinary, hard-working Joes who were stifled by regulations and taxes imposed by Washington. He made it his mission to change the widespread reputation of the Republican Party as “the party of big business and privilege.” He did so over the years by mobilizing popular rage against various figures of purportedly undeserved power and influence: Washington bureaucrats, college professors, Supreme Court justices, student protesters and, not least, the news media.

Nixon’s swift downfall in the months after his re-election sometimes leads us to forget how effective his political insight was. The welter of crimes and abuses of power known as Watergate obviously remains his greatest legacy, as current events are again reminding us. But in second place would surely be his reshaping of the Republican Party to enshrine his brand of cultural populism as both doctrine and strategy. ...

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