In 1988, Roger Ailes was at the top of the political consulting world, advising then-Vice President George H.W. Bush ahead of that year’s presidential contest when C&E sat down with him to chat about the state of political media.
Ailes no longer talks about his political consulting days—he officially left the business in the early 1990s, founding Fox News Channel a few years later. From Ailes tips on crafting the perfect attack ad to his philosophy on political media, we found this one well worth a read.
(Editor’s note: This Q&A was published in the May/June 1988 issue of Campaigns & Elections.)
C&E: You have a success record that is the envy of most consultants in either party. How have you been able to amass such a high batting average?
Roger Ailes: I think it’s because I’m unpredictable. I view every situation, every race, and every candidate differently. I try not to rely on something that worked before.
C&E: How do you attract earned media if you’re an unknown candidate?
Ailes: If you want to get unpaid media coverage, you had better be quotable. It’s an interesting problem, because very few candidates are quotable. They say, “I don’t want to say anything controversial.” And so nobody covers them. Then they blame the journalists, saying “Why don’t they write down what I said?” In congressional races, 90 percent of the time the answer is, “Because you are boring and you don’t have anything that makes me interested in listening to you. Why the heck should somebody write it down? There’s nothing here worth hearing.”
C&E: How does a candidate attract the media’s interest?
Ailes: You’ve got to find a different approach. You’ve got to create some interest in your language, in the words and pictures you create. If a candidate can’t give a 10-minute speech and have reporters reaching for their pens in the first 90 seconds, he probably shouldn’t be running.
C&E: What are some of the other more common mistakes candidates make in trying to attract earned media?
Ailes: They try to make the reporter their friend, and coopt them or seduce them or do something stupid. Reporters may be friendly—but if you get through life without having a reporter as a friend, that may be an advantage. If you insist on having one as a friend, don’t do interviews with him. Reporters have a different point of view and a different job. Consequently, to the extent that you can help them turn in an interesting story that their editor is going to like and that’s going to further their careers, they’re going to give you more ink and cover you.
C&E: What mistakes do candidates often make in their paid media?
Ailes: An enormous problem with paid media, especially at the congressional level, is that it all starts to look alike. The reason is that they all have to be shot for 79 cents, and there isn’t much you can do. If you are a good communicator, be unique: put yourself in your own commercials and do something a little different. To the extent you can focus on what it is you want to change, and what it is you think will make life better for other people, you’re going to do better. If you’re running because you want a job that’s prestigious or because you have or because you have this vague knowledge that you’re better than everybody else, you’re easier to beat. Show me a man or woman with a mission, and I’ll show you somebody that’s tougher to beat.
C&E: What are the signs that indicate whether an incumbent is weak?
Ailes: If he has no identifiable issue, if he has no definition as a person, and if that desire part of the equation just isn’t there, I don’t care what the polls say. He can be had.
C&E: Once you’re behind and you have decided to go negative, how do you make an attack stick?
Ailes: If you’re running far behind in the polls, and you decide to use comparative advertising, you have to be able to explain to the people why the incumbent shouldn’t have the job. So first I say, “Why should this so and so who’s in there not be a senator?” Then we do a lot of research and design advertising based on that. To be successful, you’ve got to get the kind of torque that’s created by a push and pull. You’ve got to draw attention to your candidate. You’ve got to attract interest in your candidate. The problem when you’re running far behind is that you’ve got to move through those positive phases very quickly. Then, you have to draw attention to the other guy. You’ve got to create interest in why you differ from him and you’ve got to create a desire to remove him.
C&E: You’ve often said a candidate has to be prepared to pick targets and go after them. How much of a danger is there that this sort of tactic can backfire? Where is the line a candidate should not cross?
Ailes: There’s something about the American people: They have such an innate sense of fairness that the red light goes on and the bells go off the second you approach that line. Any kind of personal attack is verboten. You shouldn’t do it; it’s not worth it. It will backfire. But anybody’s position on an issue, anything they’ve said about an issue, and any way they’ve voted on an issue is fair game. You have every right to question that and go after it aggressively.
It also has to do with how you look and how you sound. If you look like a mean SOB who’s putting the other person down, that’s different than if you’re inquiring about the process they go through to make a decision on behalf of the public. Also, phrase it in an interesting way; don’t phrase it in a mean or unfriendly way. Bob Dole said that if there’s anything he would have done differently, he would have said [to George Bush] “Start telling the truth about my record” instead of “Stop lying about my record.” Frankly, had he done that, life might be different for Bob Dole today.
C&E: As you’ve said, a lot has to do with how you present the attack. How can a candidate attack without coming across as a mean person?
Ailes: First, it has to be founded in fact. You better be able to defend it after the attack—so don’t stretch it. In other words, if the guy’s guilty of A and B, don’t make him guilty of A, B and C. That’s what a lot of people do. They’ll exaggerate, and then it’s not defendable. Any time you can do it with humor, you have a much better chance. As long as the audience or the public perceives you to be sincere in your approach and not petty, they will think it’s fair and they will wait for the other person’s response. But if they sense it’s petty or the slightest bit unfair, they’ll turn on you right away.
Take the  Jimmy Carter-Ronald Reagan debate. Carter kept trying to imply that somehow Ronald Reagan was going to push the button, or was irresponsible with nuclear war. You might have been able to make the case that Carter was responsible. But it’s very tough when you see a person with Reagan’s nice-guy persona up there to believe this guy somehow wants nuclear war, that he somehow wants to antagonize the Russians into an attack. It’s just not credible; it doesn’t cut with what all your other senses are telling you.
C&E: When an Ailes client is harshly attacked, how do you respond?
Ailes: It depends whether it’s a salient issue or a petty issue. That’s the first decision, because the attack may be worth ignoring—particularly if the other guy is 25 points behind and what he says isn’t real or isn’t defendable. In that case, you get a surrogate to do the counterattack, and you stay away from it. A lot of people can’t do that because their ego becomes involved. And that’s exactly what the other person is trying to do—suck you into battle.
Early in my career, I worked for Jim Holshouser [a gubernatorial candidate in North Carolina], who had almost no money. And he couldn’t get his opponent in the primary [Jim Gardner] to debate us. So I asked my candidate, “What town is Gardner from?” He was from a little town in North Carolina [Rocky Mount]. Then I asked if the town had a newspaper. He said they have a weekly newspaper. I said, “What does an eight-of-a-page ad cost in that weekly newspaper?” and he said, “About $11.” I said, “Alright. Buy one every week for the next six weeks and just put ‘Why is Gardner afraid to debate Holshouser?’ and put in reverse black-on-white with scary lines on it, like Halloween.” So we spent six weeks’ worth of $11. Every time that poor guy called home, his family said, “Why are you afraid to debate that boy? You know, this is very embarrassing down here.” So Gardner finally began attacking my candidate and accepted the challenge for debate.
To make a long story short, Holshouser ended up winning. 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.
C&E: We’ve talked about negative advertising. Are there certain kinds of positive spots that usually don’t work?
Ailes: I’ve found increasingly less effectiveness with the man on the street type of stuff that was very standard fare for years. It can still be effective, but it’s got to be done well. The last time I saw it done reasonably well was some stuff we did for Reagan in 1984 showing some Democratic workers who were going to vote for Reagan. By getting very believable people, they were pretty effective commercials. But, in general, I think man on the street ads and endorsement spots are having less and less effect on people. The electorate’s getting very sophisticated, and they just want to make their own judgments. Just because somebody else likes a candidate doesn’t necessarily mean everybody else will like them.
C&E: Because you are George Bush’s media strategist, we cannot resist at least one question about the George Bush/Dan Rather confrontation last January. What precisely was your role in the affair?
Ailes: Well, somebody once wrote that it was not a coincidence Ailes was in the room with the vice president when the whole thing happened. I think that is an astute observation.
C&E: Let’s look at the ramifications. Since that interview, the tactic of bashing the media has been emulated by many politicians at the local level. Is media bashing generally a good strategy?
Ailes: Fighting with the media almost always is a mistake. You can’t win the argument, the media has the last word, and most times your argument is not justified. Just because someone thinks he is being attacked by the media doesn’t mean he is. Many times the media actually is being fair, and they’re attacking for good reason.
In the Rather/Bush incident, it was totally unfair. CBS was trying him and convicting him and trying to execute him on national television. They had made up their minds. CBS made the fatal error of trying to become the political opposition to George Bush. And, when they did that, they put themselves in an arena where they can get knocked on their fanny.
C&E: Because there are many national media outlets is it politically easier for a national candidate to attack, as opposed to a local candidate who may be dealing with one newspaper, one radio station, and maybe a TV station 50 miles down the road?
Ailes: Candidates rarely win battles with the media, and—unless you really know what you’re doing—you should not tangle with them. 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. I’d advise him what I would do in that circumstance, but that’s about it.
I think the media is dangerously close to creating their own product. They used to cover the product, which was whatever’s happening. Today, they set up media events of their own. There was no news in the Dan Rather piece. They didn’t say [to Bush]: “We found a piece of paper that was overlooked in the 300,000 pieces of paper that were covered in the Iran-Contra hearings, and we have a piece of news we’d like to ask you about.” CBS decided to create a media event and cover it in its own fashion.
This was unprecedented in American history. CBS cancelled two-thirds of the newscast…to get a guy and take him out. When the media gets into creating their own product and then deciding to cover it, they are becoming part of the process—and therefore, could be damaged. In those circumstances, I would advise people to occasionally to take the media on—but only when you know it’s a manufactured product and not a news interview.
C&E: Based in 20 years in this business, what general advice can you offer candidates seeking elected office?
Ailes: Don’t do it unless you know what you’re doing, you’re made of steel, and you don’t mind sacrificing your personal life. It is a tremendous sacrifice to run for political office in America today. One of the reasons I’m in this business is because I have absolute respect for the people who say, “You know what? I think I can make this a little better and I’m willing to get in and try.” Because, I’ll tell you, there are a hell of a lot of reasons to stay away from running for office today.