“(Richard) Nixon is not a child of TV and he may be the last candidate who couldn’t make it on the Johnny Carson show who could make it in an election,” a 28-year-old Roger Ailes said in 1968, the month before Nixon finally won the presidency and put to rest the sweaty, anxious performance that had contrasted him so poorly with a youthful John F. Kennedy. “He’s a communicator and a personality on television, but not at his best when they say on the talk shows, ‘Now here he is ... Dick.’ Besides, he’s probably going to be president and talk shows are not quite the format becoming to a president of the United States.”
(In the same interview, Ailes noted that he also set up media appearances for Julie Nixon Eisenhower, who would become one of her father’s staunchest defenders during Watergate, and her then-fiance, David. “David and Julie are sensational; they’ll be stars before this thing is over,” Ailes said at the time. It didn’t quite work out that way.)
In 1968, Ailes used innovative strategies to help his candidate present himself more comfortably to the American people. By the time Ailes died Thursday at age 77, he had created an entire television network designed to solve the problem of politicians like Nixon, providing conservatives with coverage so friendly they might well have produced it themselves.
After Nixon became president, Ailes was frank about just how serious his candidate’s television deficits had been.
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“Now you put him on television, you’ve got a problem right away,” he told The Washington Post in 1969. “He’s a funny-looking guy. He looks like somebody hung him in a closet overnight, and he jumps out in the morning with his suit all bunched up and starts running around saying, ‘I want to be President.’ I mean this is how he strikes some people.”
Ailes and his colleagues worked to make Nixon better at television, perfecting his makeup and thinking more carefully about his camera angles. But rather than relying solely on training to fit Nixon into forums to which he was not perfectly suited, Ailes created his own, a series of televised roundtables that came to be known as “The Richard Nixon Show.”
Aired live on local stations across the country, Nixon stood on a platform, flanked by a studio audience and a small panel of local citizens who theoretically could ask Nixon whatever they wanted. The idea, explained Ailes’s collaborator Frank Shakespeare, a CBS executive who took a leave to work on the Nixon campaign, was to present a “concept of what Richard Nixon is in a way in which the public could make its own judgment. We wanted to try to create electronically what would happen if five or six people sat in a living room with him and got to know him.”
Of course, Nixon and his aides, including Ailes, chose the people from a larger pool made available to them. And despite the shtick, Nixon wasn’t always exactly frank with his interlocutors. One Philadelphia panelist, the New York Times reported, “complained to Mr. Nixon that four of his answers up to that point had been nothing more than restatements constantly made in his set campaign speech and that the panelists had no opportunity for follow-up questions.”
The genius of “The Richard Nixon Show” was that the candidate and his staff were producing their own content and talking television networks into airing it in place of genuine news content that local reporters and executives would have to go out and produce themselves. Watching Jeanine Pirro’s obsequious interview with President Donald Trump last weekend, or seeing Sean Hannity bluster through a cruel and monstrous conspiracy theory in an effort to distract viewers from the scandals swirling around Trump, the darker and more brilliant insight of Fox News becomes clear. The network eliminated the need for any future Republican to go to all that effort.