Former Fox News Chief Roger Ailes died on Thursday morning, and shortly after he did, the 41st president of the United States weighed in. George H.W. Bush said that without Ailes, he may never have become president. But what did he mean by this? After all, Ailes didn't become the CEO of Fox News until 1996, eight years after Bush won election to the presidency. Why is Bush crediting Ailes with making him president?
It's because Ailes, prior to running Fox News, was a Republican media consultant, and he worked on Bush's 1988 campaign. Ailes recognized that the then-vice president had largely lived in the shadow of Ronald Ronald, and needed to fight back against "the wimp factor," as a Newsweek cover described it. So, Ailes encouraged Bush to go on the attack, and depict his opponent Michael Dukakis as a pacifist and soft-on-crime Democrat unprepared for the presidency.
To that effect, Ailes created an ad that featured footage of a dorky-looking Dukakis riding a tank, grinning goofily while giving a thumbs-up. The commercial has become legendary in political circles; though Dukakis committed no harm by riding in that tank, the optics were absolutely terrible, and it reinforced the exact narrative that team Bush had been trying to promote.
The Bush campaign also repeatedly tried to link Dukakis to Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who committed rape and assault while released as part of a prison furlough program that Dukakis supported. A commercial the campaign ran was widely perceived as racist, and Bush's then-campaign manager later expressed regret for the "naked cruelty" that led him to use Horton as a tool against Dukakis.
Whether or not Ailes was involved in the Horton ads is a matter of dispute. According to the New York Times obituary on Ailes, he claimed that he had nothing to do with the commercials. And yet Ailes himself told Time during the campaign that that "the only question is whether we depict Willie Horton with a knife in his hand or without it."
In any event, the ad was effective: Bush destroyed Dukakis in that election, winning 426 electoral votes to Dukakis's 111. Although it's always impossible to determine what decided a presidential election, Ailes' influence evidently didn't hurt, and may have played a big role in Bush's ascension to the presidency.
Ailes advised several future Republican presidents during his pre-Fox News career. He coached Richard Nixon during the 1968 campaign and Ronald Reagan in 1984. When Reagan joked during a presidential debate with Walter Mondale that he wouldn't "exploit, for political purposes, [his] opponent's youth and inexperience," that was Ailes' line, according to Time.
When Ailes came to Fox in 1996 as its founding CEO, it seemed on the surface like a big career change. But in actuality, Ailes exercised many of the same skills at Fox that he'd put to use as a political operative, including his keen, granular sense of how to shape public opinion through the media — of what plays well on television and what doesn't. That's useful when you're advising a presidential campaign, and even more so when you're running a cable network.