The Fox in Winter

100906 article nytv The Fox in Winter“‘I’ll hug you,” said Roger Ailes. “I’ll hug you even though you’re a journalist.”

He emerged, slowly, from behind the large corner desk in his giant second-floor office at the News Corporation headquarters on Sixth Avenue and 48th Street.

“A journalist,” he repeated mid-embrace, as if tasting bile.

It was 1:15 p.m. on Sept. 28. Mr. Ailes was immaculately ensembled in a crisp blue dress shirt, red tie, suit trousers, black slip-on loafers, black socks and shiny cufflinks the size of walnuts. A smile cut through his fleshy cheeks. At 66, the president of the Fox News Channel is neither thin nor vivacious, but, up close, he does give off a healthy glow.

“I love the news business,” he said later, from a beige chenille armchair in the far corner of his drearily appointed office, a room that is sunny and impersonal, “because I think America is in trouble. I don’t think my job as a journalist is to destroy America or tear down America, nor is it my job to promote America and not find its flaws.”

The office mimics the design aesthetic of a Radisson. The carpet is green, flecked with beige. There is a small, round table with four swiveling desk chairs done in an earthy pattern with beige undertones. The walls are sparse, filled “because they would look empty otherwise” with awards that Mr. Ailes called “mostly just stupid stuff.” There is a citation from the Marines—“some dumb thing they give”—and a plaque from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, the organization that hands out Emmys. Mr. Ailes recently renounced his membership because he thinks the voting process rewards liberalism and finds the ceremony itself obnoxious.

“Our people actually have jobs, so they can’t go to the hotel and try to get lucky and eat the bagels and do stuff and chase each other up and down the halls,” he said. He recently issued an edict—something he does from time to time—that any Fox employee who received a journalism award would be terminated on the spot “because that means you sold out,” he said. “It means you’re not making any waves and you’re not doing anything that nobody else has ever done. And our job is to stir things up.”

This year, the Radio-Television News Directors Foundation, an organization for which Mr. Ailes reserves special contempt, asked if he would accept their First Amendment award. “I said, ‘Why me? You guys hate me, and you’ve really not been very nice to Fox News.’ They said, ‘The truth is, you’ve made a difference in the business and you’ve stuck by your guns.’” He will accept it, he said, “for my journalists.”

It is one of the ironies of his extreme success over the 10 years of the Fox News Channel that Roger Ailes hates journalists, manages them, and counts himself among their ranks.

One exception to Mr. Ailes’ otherwise bleak decorating sensibility is a large, bright, modernist, color-block oil painting that hangs above his desk. “Her name was Bigelow,” he said of the artist. “I bought it in 1969. As I recall, I paid $400 for it—which was pretty expensive in those days, when I was poor.” He clarified that. “I wasn’t really poor.”

Then, he had just moved to New York with hopes of producing and directing plays, which he’d done in high school and as a fine-arts student at Ohio University. “I needed something for the wall,” he said, “and I looked at it and I liked it and I purchased it. I just thought, ‘Well, it’s pretty.’”

Around this time, Mr. Ailes met a one-legged man named Kermit Bloomgarden, the second in a series of older mentors who shepherded him through his many careers. Bloomgarden was a Broadway producer and manager whose credits included Equus and The Diary of Anne Frank. “I was a kid from television,” Mr. Ailes said, “and he was in his 70’s and in the theater, and we got to be good friends.” Bloomgarden helped his young charge mount a production of Hot L Baltimore—about a hotel so scrubby the “e” had burned out—in a small space on West End Avenue.

“By then, Kermit was at the end of his career,” Mr. Ailes said. “He had his leg cut off because he had gotten some bad blood, had some blood poisoning, but he hobbled up three flights of stairs on crutches, watched the production, and said, ‘Eh, you got great taste, kid—we’ll move it to Broadway.’”

Hot L Baltimore won several Obies and was named Best American Play of 1973.

“One day he called me and he said, ‘Kid, come on over.’ He lived up on Central Park West, had a penthouse apartment,” Mr. Ailes said. “So I got in a cab, went over to his apartment, sat down, and he said, ‘I’m gonna die. I’ve got brain cancer, and I’m saying goodbye to my friends.’

“I said, ‘When are you gonna die?’ And he said, ‘Soon, soon, and I’m not gonna have a funeral.’”

They talked for an hour. “And we got up and he hugged me and said, ‘You have great instincts, kid. Always go with your instincts.’ And, um, I got in the elevator and I never saw him again. It was a really interesting time in my life. Just never saw him again. I remember hugging him at the elevator, and that was the last thing he said to me, and he was dead in a few days.”

That was the end of Mr. Ailes’ theatrical career and the beginning of his life as a journalist.

But there is always the question of death. “As I told the staff this morning,” Mr. Ailes said, “in a state-of-the-business talk that I gave because they asked about being criticized recently for being too conservative or whatever: If you don’t want to be criticized, die. Because when you die, everybody says nice things, for some reason. I mean, every funeral I’ve ever been to, people say, ‘Oh, what a great guy he was.’ I don’t have any interest in getting compliments because I’m dead.”

Ten years from now, Mr. Ailes said, his network will be “the dominant news source for the world”—whether or not he’s still running things. “I have provided probably the fire and the drive to make it happen,” he said. “I hate to say this, but if I got run over by a bus today—and this will really irritate our detractors—it wouldn’t matter at all. There are enough good young people in place to keep this going forever and force the rest of the media to pay attention to fairness, and that’s all I ever wanted to do anyway. So we’ll be fine without me.

“I hate to talk about myself,” he said. He is considering offers to write a memoir, chiefly from News Corp.–owned publisher Harper Collins, but he generally finds the idea revolting. “A lot of people have told me that people say to them, ‘What’s Roger Ailes really like? Who is he?’ I don’t think anything that’s ever been written about me is accurate. But I’ve come to conclude that everybody on earth believes that, that nothing’s ever written about who they really are.”

How can one trust journalists when nothing written is ever accurate? When Roger Ailes was very young—he was born in 1940, in Warren, Ohio—about 5 or 6, the age his son is now, he was playing outside one afternoon, walking an imaginary tightrope on a tall brick wall behind his house. His father, an employee of the Packard Electric plant, came outside and playfully urged his boy to jump. “Come on, I’ll catch you,” the elder Mr. Ailes said, as his son remembered it, and motioned with his hands. “Come on, jump.” The boy took a breath and leapt off the wall, toward his father’s waiting arms. Mr. Ailes withdrew, letting his son fall to the ground.

“He picked me up,” Mr. Ailes said, “and he said: ‘Never assume, and don’t necessarily trust anybody.’

“This is where it had a searing impact on me,” he said. “Most people, when it’s not to their advantage, and when they see you in trouble, will run the other way. My dad said, ‘Don’t do that to people.’ And I think I’ve never done that.”

Lesson learned. Mr. Ailes became obsessed with righting wrongs. His journalistic sympathies extend to those he sees as being abused or isolated: unborn fetuses, religious Americans, President Bush—“I’ve never seen a guy as demonized,” he said.

Rupert Murdoch, Mr. Ailes’ boss, phoned the office. The ensuing 10-minute conversation included a discussion of politics and one slightly off-color joke.

“You know, people say, ‘Does he like you?’ And I guess he does,” Mr. Ailes said. “I mean, I see him all the time. And I like him a lot. He’s actually funnier and enjoys laughing more than anybody would ever expect. I can’t speak from his point of view, I can only speak from mine, which is: The guy’s brilliant. I don’t know where the hell he puts his papers; his desk is always clean; he seems to know what’s going on everywhere.”

Mr. Ailes and his wife had plans to host Mr. Murdoch and his wife for dinner two nights hence. The meal would be catered, Mr. Ailes said, and the menu was not yet set.

“Rupert—like all husbands, eat fish when their wives are present and hunt for other things when they’re not,” he said. “So, it’s—well, they’re usually hunting for a piece of beef or something else. I am not a very ceremonial guy. Anybody who knows me knows if they come to my house, it’s going to be comfortable. It’s not going to be a kind of formal-type situation. First thing I said was: ‘No ties.’ I stayed over at his house last Christmas. My wife and son and I stayed overnight at his house. So we have a very good working relationship, very comfortable personal relationship.”

Mr. Ailes is not as close with the Murdoch sons. He speaks occasionally on the phone with James; he and Lachlan have lunch when the latter is in town visiting. “I have a very good relationship, great respect for both of them,” Mr. Ailes said, “and I have no idea how they feel about me.”

Over the summer, they saw each other at Pebble Beach and had a nice meal with Bill Clinton and Nicole Kidman. Shortly after Lachlan left the company for Australia last spring, Mr. Ailes took over his responsibilities, and his office. So now he has two.

Putting aside the bluster of his public persona, close up, aside from an occasional stream of invective—easily provoked by labeling Fox “conservative” or invoking the name “Dan Rather”—Mr. Ailes may as well be Santa Claus. “The private Roger Ailes is really a teddy bear,” said Fox News anchor Brit Hume. “He has a warrior spirit, but a soft touch.”

It’s not too far between the lines, the softness. He discussed the on-air blow-up between Bill Clinton and Chris Wallace the other week. “I think politics goes after too much in terms of people’s personal lives,” Mr. Ailes said. “Because everybody has a personal life. And I don’t blame Clinton for being thin-skinned about that stuff, but, I think, on the political-issues side, you have to be able to answer all the questions, and, uh, you know, it’s, I guess I feel badly for Chris Wallace because he’s getting hammered so much on his thing, and I looked at it over and over just to see: Is there anything about Chris’ question or his demeanor that would have taken him outside of responsible journalism? The answer is no. I’m stunned that more journalists aren’t speaking up to defend him.”

It’s not impossible that Mr. Ailes can relate to Mr. Clinton as well. Had he ever had a midlife crisis of his own? “Oh, several!” he said. “When I passed the big 6-0, that was an ugly one. But the truth is, my mind still thinks I’m 25 or 30, so I don’t—days when the arthritis speaks, it’s a little tougher. And I realize I’d have a little more trouble in a bar fight than I did 30 years ago,” he said.

“I think generally you have to live fearlessly. And, um, I believe in God, and He’ll sort it out someday, maybe. But the one thing I’m certain is, He has a sense of humor, because otherwise there wouldn’t be so many ridiculous things I see all day.”

Eventually, it was time for the 2:30 story meeting. As he stood to go, Mr. Ailes extended just a hand. His manicure glinted in the sun.