I have come to believe that the nearly daily back and forth between the White House and Fox News is good for both sides. I have further come to believe it’s good for the political class in general. For one thing, the fight is deeply self-referential and true inside baseball (who is doing what to whom on the basis of what strategy and what future benefit); for another it sets up the ultimate liberal-conservative face-off. In one corner the new young president (with all his promises of bipartisanship) and in the other Fox Chief Roger Ailes,
that dark figure who has been bending media to the conservative cause since the Nixon administration.
Politico, the arbiter of political baseball, floated the rumor on Friday that “friends and associates” were encouraging Ailes to run for president in 2012.
Before getting to my relative affection for Ailes, let me note that he will be 73 in 2012; he’s vastly overweight (and sensitive about it); he has health problems and can’t walk very well; he’s ghoulish looking; he’s deeply and nuttily paranoid (he discusses freely, albeit in lowered voice, the plans of radical Muslims to storm his house in New Jersey); and he may not be capable of doing 15 minutes without an offensive utterance.
Suffice it to say that nobody is encouraging Ailes to run for president.
Ailes may be odd and politically incorrect in every sense, but he is an extraordinary showman. I would doubt even that his principal interest is politics. His personal views are too curmudgeonly, baroque, and conspiratorial to be taken seriously (even by him). Instead, his interest is in getting under people’s skin. Or, really, his interest is in getting attention by getting under people’s skin. His talents are fundamentally comic, involving timing, exaggeration, shock, and the fundamental pretense that the outlandish is in earnest.
That statement will no doubt precipitate a debate about Ailes’ true nastiness and rightwingism. I’m sure his bona fides in that regard are in order. For 12 years now, as the head of Fox, he has been able to get liberals to take him seriously, thereby provoking them to states of apoplexy. He has done this partly by playing the straight man. He never quite lets on that his first goal is not a conservative state, but rather provocative television—it’s always the subtlest of winks.
I wonder now if that game is subtly changing. The White House wants us to believe they are standing up to Fox’s bullying—and they are. But what they are also doing is playing the Fox game: The White House’s pretend sanctimony is like Fox’s pretend sanctimony; it’s all for the show of it, everybody’s a big ham, everybody’s playing everybody else.
I think the White House grabbing the stage like this might be spooking Ailes. It’s suddenly become a tussle among showmen—between two sides, each gaming the other.
Curiously, the Ailes-for-president gambit, undoubtedly floated by Ailes himself, is a break in character, perhaps a fatal one. He wants his showmanship to be appreciated more than his politics. He’s joining in the fun. I’m just a clown, he’s saying.
More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/NewserColumns.