What surprised me most about Gabriel Sherman’s excellent 2014 biography of Roger Ailes—who died on Thursday, at seventy-seven—was how much of Ailes’s upbringing was a gift of America’s postwar social contract. He was born in 1940 and raised in Warren, Ohio, a town with a beautiful post office, adorned with W.P.A. murals, that was built by the New Deal. His father was a union worker in the nearby Packard Electric plant, and retired with a pension. Ailes idealized growing up in Warren; he thought of it as the real America, which had been degraded by the eggheads and the snobs. When he created his own production company, in 1990, it was named after his childhood street.
He was a hemophiliac, and as a boy often stayed home from school. He grew up a loner, absorbing hours of daytime programming and, in the evenings, sometimes, beatings from his father. The portrait Sherman draws of Ailes’s father is of a man who felt thwarted by the very things that made and sustained him: marriage, a labor union, suburbia. Unable to see the glory in any of it, he took to abusing those around him who couldn’t defend themselves. (A court later found him guilty of “extreme cruelty” to his wife.) Once, when Roger was small, his father told him to jump off a top bunk into his arms; his father let him crash to the floor and said, “Don’t ever trust anybody.” (As Jill Lepore notes in her review of the Sherman biography for this magazine, a man who worked with Ailes in the nineteen-seventies called this Ailes’s “Rosebud story.”)
Having been a student of both his father’s mood swings and televisual technique, Ailes, unsurprisingly, became, in Sherman’s words, a “big fan” of Leni Riefenstahl. At virtually every point that television played a role in degrading American life, Ailes was there: the repackaging of Nixon, the destruction of Michael Dukakis, the hyping of the Lewinsky scandal and the Iraq War, and on and on. He was less a right-winger or believer in family values than a hustler and an opportunist, and, from the evidence Sherman assembles, a badly damaged human being. But he was a consummate talent. You’d have to be to turn Nixon into a likable man, or Dukakis, with his easygoing manner and charming immigrant backstory, into a race traitor and backstabbing Fifth Columnist.
The outsized profits that Ailes created for Fox came from doing something he instinctively understood: simultaneously alarming and comforting people who were home alone watching television. To justify himself to himself, he had to believe that “real” journalism, with its supposed canons of “objectivity,” was dishonest, self-serving, slanted. All he was doing was issuing corrective after corrective to a world vilely corrupted by liberalism. But this was less partisan politics than the strategic use of misanthropy to hide from one’s own self-hatred—or at least that is the overwhelming impression given by Sherman’s book.
Prior to cable, television news had been regulated by the standards of William Paley, the founder of CBS, and by the fact-finding probity of his first breakout star, Edward R. Murrow. It was this legacy that Ailes set out to destroy. Television produces simultaneity but at a great distance; intimacy but—at low levels and at all times—feelings of alienation. The genius of Paley, as expressed by Murrow to Walter Cronkite, was putting forth figures that soothed the alienated response, allayed and minimized it, in favor of an elevated idea of both the country and the medium. The genius of Roger Ailes is that he intensified and played upon that alienation, and then, as it shaded into paranoia, channelled it against his enemies, or anyone who dared tell him that his childhood was a lie.
But perhaps it was. Throughout his childhood, Ailes was told that his paternal grandfather had been killed in combat in the First World War. In fact, as he discovered only later in life, his father’s father was living a few towns over during Ailes’s childhood and was a “a respected public health official with a Harvard degree.” Ailes’s father was the son of a proper Wilsonian, an accomplished and credentialed public servant.
There was a time in my life when, every so often, I would watch Fox News for hours at a time. My wife and I used to fly through Atlanta and into the rural airport in Dothan, Alabama, to visit her grandparents. If her grandparents were religious, they kept it quiet. There was no Jesus in that house, no Bible, no devotional materials of any kind, no crucifixes or homiletic asides, nothing. The absence was explained once, cursorily, by the story of how Grandaddy, at the age of ten, had been forced to go to church wearing shorts. He hated wearing shorts, and never went to church again. He had been a cook in the Navy, and was the kind of quiet man who refused his shore leave. When he retired, he promised himself he would never cook again, and never leave his cattle farm.
He would wake up early and work outside before the heat descended, then recline on his sofa and watch soap operas. He gardened, he whittled, he pastured cows, and he almost never spoke. After the soap operas, he would turn on Fox News. Every year, the television got a little louder. It was on these annual visits that I came to understand that Fox News, for all its outrageous excesses, is a low-level inflammation-delivery system, the real effects of which are felt only over time.
The day my wife was born, her grandfather bought a cow in her name, and used the money from selling its calves to put her through college. He once said, with a conviction so total I have never forgotten it, that he didn’t mind the Wall Street bankers and their bonuses because “they don’t have anything I want.” Deep into his eighties, his convictions seemed to shift in both direction and ferocity. He believed that the subprime crisis involved only public housing, the malfeasance of the government, and unqualified minority borrowers. Only in retrospect did I align a growing coldness in his manner toward us with the milestones of Ailes’s later career: the launching of Fox News, in 1996; its deepening paranoia during the Obama years. I saw up close how Roger Ailes implanted beliefs in people that were beneath their good character.
I would distill Ailes’s genius down to the following formula: There is a person at a great distance from you who, simply by existing, insults your existence; therefore, that person does not have a right to exist. Ailes did more to degrade the tone of public life in America than anyone since Joseph McCarthy, and, even the day after his death, it is a struggle to write about him without borrowing from that tone.
I’ve been meaning to write this column for years.
The inspiration will invariably come some warm May evening as I am standing in the lobby of a downtown hotel and, suddenly, a limousine sweeps up and disgorges these boys in crisp tuxes, these girls in sparkly dresses, T-shirts and hoodies abandoned for the night, looking handsome and gorgeous and startlingly adult as they seek the ballroom where the prom is being held.
Or the inspiration will arrive on a June afternoon as I am passing a chapel where some poor photographer is wrangling children, flower girls and ring bearers much more interested in frolicking on the grass than in posing for posterity, as groomsmen and bridesmaids arrange themselves just so while the newly minted Mr. and Mrs. beam, having just vowed to face together whatever comes.
Or, the inspiration will show up as it did a few days ago when I served as commencement speaker for Willamette University. The stately strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” rang in the damp Oregon air, then bagpipers played and cheers rose as a procession of black-robed young people made their way forward to meet a moment many years and tears in the making. And I heard a familiar whisper.
It said, You really ought to write a piece celebrating the rituals of spring.
I’ve toyed with the idea many times. But invariably, the notion of some such languid meditation is burned away in the fire of more urgent news.
It almost happened again this year. Lord knows there is no shortage of urgent news. Did you hear about the president blabbing classified intel to the Russians? Did you see where he apparently asked the FBI director to back off an investigation? Did you know about the appointment of a special prosecutor?
The guy who promised to “drain the swamp” is snorkeling in it. The president — and, thus, the country — lurch from crisis to crisis like a drunk on the deck of a ship in high seas, and there is a queasy sense of America unraveling.
What are a prom, a wedding, a graduation against all that? These are not special things. These things happen all the time.
But that, of course, is precisely what makes them special. These things happen all the time.
Or, more to the point, they have happened, always. In the years when men went to war wearing pie pan helmets, during the gin and jazz of the ’20s, the brother, can you spare a dime of the ’30s, in the blood and sacrifice of the ’40s and the rock, riot and political murder of the ’60s, through gas lines, Max Headroom, and the meaning of is, through upheaval, change, and all the unravelings that have come before, certain things have always happened.
Fumbling fingers have always pinned corsages to girl’s dresses. Nervous couples have always pledged themselves one to the other. “Pomp and Circumstance” has always heralded the graduates.
I think that’s why, when you witness spring’s rituals, you almost always smile. Who can help smiling as some girl goes tottering on skyscraper heels into her prom or some graduate pumps his fist as he crosses the stage?
You smile, remembering. You smile because these are signs of continuity. You smile because they are acts of faith.
Yes, the president lurches. Yes, one feels an unraveling.
But the bride stands beneath the garland clutching her bouquet, as brides always have, the students move the tassel from right to left as students ever will. There is renewal in these rituals of spring. They allow you to remember that even now, some things are still good.
And to believe they always will be.