One would think he’d be difficult to see, all the way out there—no, no, not there; look further … further, out on the horizon—perched on the precipice of the screaming, wind-whipped, bleeding (forever bleeding, in his case) edge.
And he would be so goddamn far afield out there too, deeper in right than a slow pitch outfielder, more conservative and cavalier than the Cavaliers were it not for his outsized influence, his Jovian—oof; fuck; one is just going to have believe me that this is not a reference to our man-on-the-edge’s corpulence, and that said corpulence will only be brought up again later in a revelatory, not derogatory light, and leave it at that, because, honestly, Jovian is the word here—predominance in American culture, his brilliantly caustic mind and savant-like savvy for messaging.
We have a description of gravity that paraphrases thusly: That the entire universe sits on a mattress or blanket or what have you, a soft, flat surface. If one pictures the various heavenly miscellanea sitting upon this, the indentations they would make is how they project gravity upon the universe.
Roger Ailes, and, by extension, his magnificent, Revelations-esque beast Fox News, would viciously fall through the sheet.
Ailes has built at News Corp a conservative counterbalance to the traditional neutral media. His creation sits so powerful and heavy that it has drawn the American electorate thin … thin enough that we can now see sinew, tendons and ligaments pulled taut as piano wire. Make no mistake: A society lives and dies by its middle, and its middle cannot be found without those pulling at the poles. This stretching mostly feels healthy, intrinsic, necessary; it is only when we are in danger of being rent—and think, how massive must the pulling be, to actually have ramifications on a country hugged by two oceans—that some effort must be made to rein in outliers.
The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News—And Divided a Country aims to do just that. New York magazine’s contributing editor Gabriel Sherman, in chronicling Ailes’s rise to power—it can be thought of, really, in no other, more apolitical way—demonstrates the only means to effectively combat extreme elements. How? By understanding them. Yes, understanding hold the key to the psychic reeling-in required to prevent the drawing and bifurcating of the electorate. (No offense to the Libertarians, Socialists, Fascists and various sundry others out there, but the political spectrum in the United States unequivocally exists as dyadic, even if its fringes resemble a cat-o’-nine-tails.)
In his Esquire profile of Ailes, Tom Junod quotes Columbia University School of Journalism professor Dick Wald: “You can’t beat Roger fighting on territory he’s left behind.” Wald, of course, has it right; trying to outflank Roger Ailes is akin to growing Victory Gardens in the salted soil of Carthage, or battling Sherman amongst the cold ashes of Atlanta. Ailes not only destroys the common ground, the narrative, he then constructs his own, and with astonishing attractiveness. Ailes constantly adds to his creation, a neocon Disney World. Trying to move against anyone who has gleefully, willfully chosen to reside therein (never mind the architect himself) is quixotic in the extreme.
Maybe suicidal, too. Ask John Kerry. Ask public figures who spoke out against invading Iraq.
And so the biographer Sherman eschews the lance. Leaving the subversion and wit and style to Junod and Ailes’ many, many antagonists, he instead lays the Ailes tale out for us, as a cartographer or vivisector, so that we may understand.
Sherman writes The Loudest Voice in the Room in what could be considered the Vanity Fair style; thorough, well researched, tightly spun from the record and ex post facto. Well written, too, but lacking a sense of rhetorical flair—ironic, considering a flair for rhetoric comes through as the book’s raison d’etre—and with depth replacing flash. None of which should be considered an indictment; Sherman makes a living as an editor, after all, and writes with easy grace and relatively even keel. When he tacks towards opinion, he does it swiftly, with just the right amount of venom, then settles on course again. We feel a certain politicking, of course. (How can you apoliticize an inherently partisan creature?) But – spoiler alert here – Sherman gives us a Roger Ailes who, despite himself, sometimes emerges as, gasp!, human, and, monocle falling into the Manhattan, even a tragic one!
As a human, not a monster, we can deal with Ailes.
The story begins, as so many do, in decidedly modest environs, in Warren, Ohio, the kind of place from where the likes of U.S. Representative and noted obstructionist John Boehner or blustery, gauche-tongued veep Joe Biden have sprung. Here we find young Roger afflicted with hemophilia, what Junod describes as “the Royal Disease, the disease of Queen Victoria’s progeny.” Following a particularly harrowing brush with death, Ailes rises imbued, literally, with the blood of the working man.
(Now the promised note on Ailes’ obesity: One key aspect is his arthritis, which keeps him from being physically active. Ailes’s hemophilia brought on this arthritis; the blood disorder causes blood to pool in his joints. Seeing a young, pre-arthritis Roger, who looked downright strapping, astonishes.)
After little Roger suffered a tousling at the hands of some neighborhood kids, Ailes’ father, a hard-loving, Red Foreman type (he once implored Ailes, Sherman writes, to leap from his top bunk bed, only to step away and allow gravity and the floor to teach the boy a cruel lesson in trust), instilled in his son what now, in retrospect, could be seen as the driving doctrine of his entire life.
Robert Sr. inculcated in his son a kind of Warren catechism, a blue-collar ethos summed up in epigrams; violence never solves anything, but the threat of violence can be very useful; if you have to take two, disarm one; if you have no options, then remember, son: for them, it’s a fight. For you, it’s life or death.
Here we find, of course, the lodestar, the way to navigate one’s self to the bitter edge where Ailes thrives:
For him, it’s life or death.
This doggedness, this full-throated, white-knuckled, blood-literally-pooling-in-the-shoes intensity originally revealed itself in business, in creativity. Ailes proved himself an irrefutable genius when it came to television, and his TV eye, forever roving, assaying, may be the best that has ever lived.
He gave the medium much: The large rotating Fox bug—that’s the network logo in the corner, large because Ailes got into a dick-measuring contest with the other networks over this innocuous detail and, of course, won, and it rotates because it was becoming seared into Fox News’ dedicated viewer’s television sets, a dead pixel ghoul haunting the corner, a solution to any TV man’s dream problem. He gave the medium incredibly eye-catching graphics … and the lighting, the staging, set design … and the fleet of beautiful, severe, extremely talented women. All Ailesian (like Nixonian, or Dickensian). All watchable. All damn watchable.
A man who measures the idiosyncrasies of television aesthetics in life-or-death terms would be the only man who could make Richard Milhous Nixon … jowly, beady-eyed, fiendish-looking Nixon … palatable. A man for whom the coming importance of the television era was predicted as death and espoused as life would be the only man who could harness TV for political leverage.
Sherman writes well of these frothy king-making days, understanding how Ailes and his allies shaped the political reality in America. And while The Loudest Voice in The Room will not be confused for Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72 anytime soon, the same kind of revelry in blood sport, the political junkie mentality, infects. Ever since Thompson struck the right chord for following The Game—that triadic chord being 1. That it is a game, 2. That it is the most savage, ruthless, and important game, and 3. That anyone involved with it is, in turn, savage and ruthless—most of us crave knowing any backchannel scenes and machinations we can. Sherman most certainly provides these (if a bit antiseptically) in spades.
We find even keener jolt in watching Ailes apply these lessons to his baby … and eventual ratings champion … Fox News. Sherman matter-of-factly places us inside the creation of a monster, stripping away the “fair and balanced” mantra of the network and demonstrating, with a nigh un-impugnable degree of certainty what our general consensus already seems to know, namely, that Fox News is conservative America, the GOP and, more damaging, Ailes’ own extreme iteration thereof. Fox News exists as Ailes’ right hand, his tongue, his dagger and cure, and Sherman’s recounting of how Ailes built it all becomes as addictive in the reading as the coiffed, buffed, vein-bulging, vocal-chord-shredding final product. To see Ailes masterfully balance business, talent, aesthetic and, above all, politics makes us witness to alchemy of sorts, a right-wing black magic.
Amazingly, in the end Ailes’ experiment may have failed. As Sherman notes, his behemothic centrifuge, with much sound and fury, successfully separated the electorate. It left Ailes with the conservative majority, which, unfortunately for the loudest voice in the room, turns out to be the nation’s minority.
Even this renders Ailes’ achievement no less impressive or terrifying.
Sherman illustrates the eventual failure of Fox News’ dividing of the electorate by recounting Ailes’ small-scale battles in Putnam County.
Up in Washington Irving country, in the Hudson Valley north of New York City, Ailes launched a mini-conglomerate, including a good old-fashioned newspaper, among other pieces. The heavy-handed play for local media and political control catalyzed townspeople along partisan lines.
Up in Washington Irving country, Ailes lost, just as surely as he did on the national stage when Obama captured the White House in 2008. In this seething little Hudson Valley microcosm, Ailes’ paranoia, a Cimmerian undercurrent throughout The Loudest Voice in the Room, finally pours forth black as cuttlefish ink. Sherman uncorks a story of remote email accessing, black SUV trailing, apartment surveillance, and more. He takes Ailes’ longtime personal fears—fended off by combat-ready windows, steel security doors—and presents them in a dangerous light.
It is one thing for a man to be morbidly concerned for his own well-being, so long as only he himself hears the distant chopchopchop of the black helicopters. It is quite another when that man sees his enemies not in the far-off shadows of the halls of power, but in his own backyard, around his own living room couch.
That Ailes lives in paranoia cannot come as a surprise. Life on the edge, neighbors only to his left, must be a lonely place, and if one stares off into that void long enough, something inevitably will stare back. Sea monsters thrash in the corner of the maps, adjules skulk just beyond the reach of the fire, wild Pokemon grunt in the tall grass.
Paranoia, crucifixations and vaingloriousness aside—and how elaborate must the delusions of grandeur be, to be present in a man who arguably ranks truly among the most powerful of Americans, as Nixon once did?—the Ailes that Sherman details here falls, in a glorious display of the pseudo-moderation he so feverishly shovels into his Cable’s Charybdis, somewhere above man but below (depending on one’s leanings) God or Monster.
B. David Zarley is a freelance journalist, critic, essayist, and political commentator based in Chicago. His work has been seen in The Atlantic Cities, Salon, Sports on Earth, VICE, The Classical, and numerous other publications. He is also a book critic for The Myrtle Beach Sun News. You can follow him on Twitter, @BdavidZarley, or at bdavidzarley.com.