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Pulling the Strings

The suprise of Vice President George Bush’s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination is not his campaign but Bush himself. Everyone knew that Bush operatives, especially political director Richard Bond, would have states such as Iowa, Michigan, and New Hampshire organized down to the grade school level. And everyone knew that Bush, given his office, would corral most GOP leaders. But who’d have guessed that Bush would perform so memorably in the five debates, four with the other Republican candidates and one with CBS anchorman Dan Rather? Who’d have suspected that Bush would be funny, assertive, confrontational, succinct, and very, very quotable? Practically no one, and that includes me.

Some of the credit for Bush’s performance goes to Bush, but a lot more belongs to Roger Ailes, the media consultant and debate coach who joined the Bush campaign last fall. It pains me to admit that a consultant has had such a powerful impact, since I’m convinced the role of consultants is vastly overrated (see “The Myth of Political Consultants,” TNR, June 16, 1986). But the effect of Ailes on Bush is unmistakable. Not only have Bush’s newfound poise and the one-liners fed to him by Ailes thwarted the other candidates; they also have charged up Bush’s supporters. In every debate, except the January 16 session in New Hampshire, Bush has given his backers something to cheer about, some quip to savor. This keeps them energized during the rough patches in the race, particularly now with questions about Iranamok dogging Bush.

Here’s a way to measure the impact of Ailes. First, think of Bush’s performance in debates in earlier campaigns. He barely outpointed an inexperienced Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, and threw away his gain with a dumb remark afterward about having “kicked a little ass,” Then consider what Bush did in the five debates this time, putting aside the one-liners. What’s left is an extremely lackluster showing. Absent the quips and the confrontational style. Bush would have been the big loser. And his candidacy would be in deep trouble today. So the only fair conclusion is that Ailes has mattered.

Certainly the other campaign staffs think so. “He’s been the single most valuable member of the Bush team without doubt, more valuable than the candidate,” says David Keene, a former Bush aide who now advises Senator Robert Dole, True, Keene is eager to belittle Bush by playing up Ailes. Still, his respect for Ailes is genuine. Both Dole and Representative Jack Kemp tried to recruit Ailes, 48, for their campaigns, “He was always our first choice,” says Kemp chairman Edward Rollins. Charles Black, Kemp’s campaign manager, started talking to Ailes in 1953 about the 1988 race. Donald Devine, a Dole consultant, talked to Ailes off and on for several years, “Clearly Bush has done better in the debates than he has in anything in his life,” says Devine. “Something did that, and it was coincident with the time Ailes came aboard.”

Ailes doesn’t claim to remake clients. “I can’t change anyone,” he writes in his book You Are The Message: Secrets of the Master Communicators, published last year. “All I can do help them identify and bring out their best qualities, the ones that communicate a positive message.” A business or political leader who is friendly and at ease in conversation may tighten up in front of a TV camera, Ailes says. “My job becomes one of trying to get him to change back into that warm, comfortable person he was when we were just sitting and chatting.”

Coaching by Ailes helped President Reagan get through the second debate with Walter Mondale in 1984. Reagan had bombed in the first encounter, reviving concern about his age and mental agility. In practice sessions, Ailes says, Reagan’s advisers were too critical of him, destroying his confidence. At one point, Reagan gave a good answer in practice, but no one congratulated him. Ailes shouted from the back of the auditorium in the Executive Office Building, “Mr. President, that was a terrific answer.” Reagan smiled.

Ailes is wrongly credited by Time with feeding Reagan his best line. But Ailes’s role was pivotal nonetheless. He found that Reagan aides didn’t want to mention the age issue. After the last major practice session, Ailes asked, “Mr. President, what are you going to do when they say you’re too old for the job?” Reagan was silent for a bit, then said he remembered an old line. Ailes practiced it with him, and in the debate Reagan fired it off, without pause: “I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Even Mondale was forced to crack a smile. But the important thing was that had Reagan not had time to recall and practice the line, he probably wouldn’t have come up with it in time to give a quick riposte on national television.

The Ailes theory is that you can win with a sharp line or two, since that’s what most of the electorate will see. This is all the more true in pre-primary debates, which are ignored by most voters. What they see are “sound bites” from the debates, episodes of ten or 20 or 30 seconds, on news shows. Ailes coaches his candidates to do well in the sound bites, and Bush has scored heavily. Neither of Bush’s chief competitors for the Republican nomination. Dole and Kemp, has.

As front-runner, Bush put off debating his opponents for as long as he could, which heightened the drama of his performance in the first nationally televised debate in Houston on October 28. On that occasion, the guy who was supposed to be hiding from the other candidates suddenly seemed to be in command. But, in truth, all he had was one withering line. Pete du Pont was pestering Bush for not displaying “any vision, any principles, any policies,” and the moderator, William F. Buckley Jr., called on Bush to respond. “My friend—Pierre—let me help you on some of this.” The line was sharp-edged—du Pont doesn’t like to be called “Pierre”—and funny. And Bush went on to say of du Pont’s idea of revamping Social Security, “It may be a new idea, but it’s a dumb one.” Bush’s put-down of du Pont made him the star of the sound bites.

The “Pierre” line came from Ailes, and so did the Bush quip in the December 6 debate on NBC. He used an answer to a question on AIDS to zing the Democratic presidential candidates, who had just completed a 30-minute debate segment. “To hear the Democrats wringing their hands about all that’s wrong—I’m sorry,” Bush said. “I’m depressed. I want to switch over and see ‘Jake and the Fatman’ on CBS.” Bush had never seen the show, but the line worked. Again he dominated the sound bites.

He did it once more in Iowa in the January 8 debate sponsored by the Des Moines Register. When James Gannon, the paper’s editor, who was moderating the debate, asked about Bush’s refusal to tell all he knows about Iranamok, Bush was ready. He accused Gannon of suggesting in his paper that Bush may have known about the diversion of money to the contras. Bush demanded that Gannon ask him about that so he could answer it on TV. Gannon didn’t. Nor did the other candidates take up Bush on his challenge that they ask him anything at all on Iranamok. The result: another Bush triumph in the sound bites.

In the January 26 square-off with Rather, Bush followed Ailes’s advice on two counts. CBS had asked for 60 minutes of interview time from which to distill a portion to be used on the “CBS Evening News.” Going along with that would have been asking for trouble, according to Ailes. He advises candidates to avoid “TV programs that are extensively edited.... The network will use their most controversial 18 seconds. Those seconds could be remarks out of context or could be the one moment they lose their cool. The primary goal of a program like this is to get ratings.” Ailes writes that he likes the morning shows, “which are live or live on tape [and candidates] have a fair shot at saying what they want to say and being sure that it remains intact.”

Bush also had several zingers. Hours before the debate, his spokesman, Peter Teeley, had gotten a call from a friend (an ex-CBS employee, Teeley said) who insisted that Rather planned to go after Bush aggressively. Ailes had just the grenade to throw Rather off-stride: a mention of the time last fall when Rather left the set and caused CBS to go black. Bush saved it until he was more than halfway through the nine-minute squabble with Rather. “How would you like it if I judged your career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set?” Rather looked thunderstruck, and he lost his cool completely. Bush used another planned quip about the Iranamok questions as well (“There’s nothing new here—I thought this was a news program”), but it was a throwaway line. He didn’t need it. He’d already won.

What might have happened to Bush without Ailes literally at his side before the debate? Nothing good, that’s for sure. Bush actually did poorly in the Q&A with Rather. He didn’t follow the Ailes command to “exercise the law of inverse proportions. The more inflammatory the journalist, the cooler you should be,” Bush got testy. His answers were sometimes barely coherent. But so what? When it got overheated. Rather cracked more than Bush did. And Bush and Ailes got the sound bites they wanted.