I can't honestly say I knew Roger Ailes well - not the way Rush or George Bush Sr knew him. The last time I saw him, not long before he was forced out, was by the elevator bank at Fox as I was exiting the building and he was coming in. "Hi, Mark," he said affably - which impressed the people I was with. I don't think that was a reflection of anything other than that, for twenty years, he had singlehandedly made every decision that mattered at Fox, and most of the ones that, to your average network chairman or CEO, didn't. In that sense, whatever the titles they may hold, no one has "replaced" him at Fox News, because no one could: It's not often that a man builds a 24/7 television channel in his own image, and keeps it that way for two decades.
I first met him in the early Nineties when he was at CNBC and he was a guest on my BBC show. I was impressed that he went all the way back to The Mike Douglas Show in the late Sixties. "Now that was television," I enthused. "Mike Douglas, Dinah Shore..."
"Yeah, well, that's why you're on the BBC," said Ailes. He didn't really mean it - I mean, he did about me and the Beeb, but not about Mike and Dinah. He learned a lot from those shows and then brought it to politics, treating his candidates as personalities whose events required creative production. The example he gave that day was from the Nixon campaign: The candidate was risk-averse and preferred the stump speech to go as planned. But Ailes knew his client better than he did himself. At the last minute, he'd go outside to the knot of protesters and tell them there were a few places still left for the event, and would anyone like a seat? Then he'd pick the three smelliest hippiest-looking hippies and usher them in to the seats that (unknown to not-half-so-Tricky Dick) he'd held for them. When they started barracking Nixon, the presidential candidate would round on them and slap them down brilliantly and devastatingly, the very embodiment of a no longer silent "silent majority". It made for great TV, and it also perked Nixon up no end. As a buoyant re-charged candidate walked off-stage, he'd put his arm around Ailes and growl: "Thought that went well tonight. Really stuck it to the hippies."
He brought that showman's savvy to Fox. As Charles Krauthammer likes to say, Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes discovered an under-served niche market: 50 per cent of the American people. At the time Ailes was on my BBC show, Murdoch's new network was already in the works and the man he'd picked to run it was Andrew Neil, his editor at The Sunday Times in Britain (now at the Beeb and chairman of the Speccie). That fit a Murdoch pattern with his American ventures, of parachuting in someone he trusted from London or Oz (as at The Wall Street Journal and New York Post). This time, though, he had second thoughts: before the project got off the ground, Neil returned to the UK, and Murdoch let Ailes have a completely free hand in reinventing cable news. Within five years, the upstart had overtaken CNN, and never looked back.
It wasn't just the "under-served niche market". Ailes was political, but he wasn't an ideologue, and he knew TV better than anyone. He liked to watch Fox with the volume off - so he could judge how it looked. These days, every so often, I get a yen to see how the other channels are covering something and I twiddle the dial. It never ceases to amaze me how visually dull CNN is - and how no one does anything about it. I caught Anderson Cooper the other night - something to do with sex scandals at Fox, as it happens - but all I remember is how flat and boring the look of the show was. Roger Ailes was a TV genius, with interesting theories: with a boisterous mien and not overly kempt, manicured and accoutred, he told me in some detail about what he considered off-puttingly dandified anchormen.
He certainly had a remarkable eye for talent. He took two unpolished radio guys who barely knew what camera they were on and made "Hannity & Colmes" a decade-long hit. In Bill O'Reilly, he had a host with a rare presence and size (for this genre), but who'd been around a long time and hadn't yet found a format that worked for him: thanks to Ailes, he did. And so it went for a hundred lesser lights. I was told not so long ago of a chap who unsuccessfully pitched a show to Roger for the evening on Fox Business. Ailes turned to his lieutenant Bill Shine: "What shit are we running then anyhow?"
Which is a cute line. But I bet he knew. He knew everything, sometimes in obsessive detail. Over the years I guest-hosted for Sean Hannity, I always appreciated the way, if I chanced to be at a media event in New York, Roger would give a smooth professional shout-out from the podium and say, "Mark does just a fabulous job sitting in for Sean." And sometimes he'd almost sound as if he meant it.
In the murk of a malodorous litigation environment where "claims" are best understood as opening bids, the allegations against him remain just that - allegations. But they destroyed him and cost him his network, and yesterday they made Fox's on-air tributes to its founder sound awkward and constrained. He was "not a perfect man", as the first President Bush Tweeted in memoriam, but he found what for him was the perfect job. Roger Ailes was a masterful impresario - a word which has fallen out of use because so few people have the portfolio of qualities to justify it. He had no ambitions on-camera, but off-camera, unlike Rupert Murdoch, he tended to do most of the talking, which could get a little exhausting over lunch. Up on stage he was a funny speaker, with the kind of retro pro polish one assumes he picked up somewhere along the way from Mike or Merv or Dinah. If Murdoch was in the room, there was a line he liked to use. I heard him do it on three or four occasions, as one does, and enjoyed it more each time. Ailes would say:
"People always ask me: 'What's Rupert really like?'
"And I always tell them: He really likes money."
And, two seats along the dais or over at the top table, Rupert would always laugh.
As Ailes may occasionally have reflected in recent months, it was rather more complicated than that.
~Later this morning Steyn will be on one of his favorite Fox shows, "Varney & Co" on Fox Business, live across America just after 11.30am Eastern/8.30am Pacific.