Media

Roger Ailes Lived Fearlessly Amid the Specter of Death

He was expected to die as a child. Instead, he became one of the most powerful men in media.

Fox News headquarters pays tribute.

Photographer: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

When I met Roger Ailes, in 2012, one of the first things I noticed about him was his acute sense of his own mortality. He talked about it then and in many of our subsequent conversations.

“I’d give anything for another ten years,” he told me after a medical checkup. He was 72 at the time and I was working on a book about his life. “My doctor told me that I’m old, fat and ugly, but none of those things is going to kill me immediately. The actuaries say I have six to eight years. The best tables give me ten. That’s 3,000 days, more or less.”

Ailes didn’t get the whole 3,000, but reaching 77 was an unanticipated milestone. He was a hemophiliac. As a young boy growing up Warren, Ohio, he came close to bleeding to death more than once. “I spent a lot of time in hospitals back then just lying in the dark, thinking that any accident could be dangerous or even fatal,” he said without evident self-pity.

A few months after our first meeting, Ailes and his wife Beth took their 12-year-old son Zac on a trip to Warren. At the cemetery, Roger found his grandparents’ headstones, separated by a child-sized plot that had been reserved for him. “I’ve lived with that all my life,” he said, with the hint of a smile.    

This was typical Ailes, hard-nosed and sardonic. As a political consultant to Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George Bush and innumerable lesser candidates, he had cultivated an almost clinical detachment. He read polls with a practiced skepticism and brought the same gimlet eye to Fox News, which he founded on a handshake with Rupert Murdoch in 1996.

“Roger and I have a close personal friendship,” Murdoch liked to say, which amused Ailes.

“Does Rupert like me? I think so, but it doesn’t matter,” he said. “When I go up to the magic room in the sky every three months, if my numbers are right I get to live. If not, I’m killed. Our relationship isn’t about love, it’s about arithmetic.”

Ailes believed back in 2012 that Murdoch’s sons, James and Lachlan, wanted to get rid of him. He assumed that Rupert would protect him as long as he continued to hit his numbers, which he did up to his last day at the network. But in this, as in little else, Ailes was naive. He didn’t expect loyalty but he overestimated the power of making money. The boys, though, were already rich. They got Ailes on charges he didn’t see coming, ones he denied to his dying day.

After Ailes was fired we emailed a few times and discussed meeting in New York or Florida, but we never did. I’m sorry about that. I liked and respected Roger, both as a man and a journalistic force. America, whether it knows it or not, is much better off for having at least one network that looks at the world through different eyes.

Ailes, despite his political conservatism, was a proudly impious man who bragged about being thrown out of “every damn church” he had ever belonged to. But he often talked about God in a personal way.

“I have a strong feeling that there’s something bigger than us,” he told me in one of our last conversations. “I don't think all this exists because some rocks happened to collide. When my time comes, I’ll be calm, I’ll be fine. I’m ready. But I’ll miss life.”

I asked him what he imagined the afterlife would be like. “I’m pretty sure God’s got a sense of humor” he said. “I think he gets a laugh out of me from time to time, so I suppose things will be all right.”

“What are you going to do if you get there and find out God’s a liberal?” I asked.

This was something that hadn’t occurred to him, and he pondered the possibility. “Well, hell, if God’s a liberal, that’s his business,” he finally said.

“But I doubt very much that he is.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Zev Chafets at zchafets@gmail.com

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net

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