For all of the contrasts drawn this week between President Donald Trump and President George H.W. Bush, and there are many, the two chief executives did share one thing in common that helped assure their electoral successes: Roger Ailes.
This week’s tributes to Bush, with their emphasis on his gentlemanly public service, optimism and affability, diverge sharply with the current president’s dark, transactional demeanor and outlook. But for all their superficial and substantive differences, they both were aided greatly by Ailes: Bush as an employer of his skills as a strategist and political ad man in the 1988 race and Trump as a recipient of his authority to provide a ready platform on the country’s premiere conservative news channel: Fox News.
In 1988, then-Vice President Bush was flailing in his presidential bid against Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. Ailes’ hard-hitting strategy, most notably the “Revolving Doors” television ad, a companion piece to the notorious “Weekend Passes,” ad that made Willie Horton a household name, is widely credited with helping turn the race in Bush’s favor.
Those ads criticized Dukakis for supporting weekend furlough programs for some prisoners. While on one furlough, Horton, an African-American, raped a woman and stabbed her boyfriend. Even in an analogue age, the ads went viral, along with charges that they played to racist tropes of black men as predators.
Fast forward three decades and, flipping on Fox at any given hour, one finds Trump, calling into “Fox and Friends” in the morning and sitting for interviews with every Fox personality that could fit him in.
The result? A familiarity with Trump for a dedicated bloc of voters, who got used to the New York real estate developer espousing his views on everything from President Barack Obama to immigration policy to whatever happened to be on his mind. And the ratings spiked every time, which Ailes, a Trump ally, was keenly aware of.
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That symbiotic relationship is detailed in the new movie by Alexis Bloom, “Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes.” Bloom’s movie, which she discussed on this week’s Political Theater Podcast, serves as not just a political biography of Ailes, but a deeply informed and entertaining look at the media and American culture.
Oh, and it features some great clips, including of Ailes dancing with Cyndi Lauper on the long-lost 1990s artifact, the America’s Talking network. And, and, and! Ailes, long before being forced out of his perch atop Fox by sexual harassment charges, joking with Charlie Rose, long before being forced out of his perch atop talk-show journalism, about how the media is the last place you can get away with sexual harassment.
Can’t make this stuff up.
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