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Jeff Simon: Roger Ailes was the master alchemist

It's 1982. The Republican candidate's name was Lew Lehrman. He ran for governor against the venerable Mario Cuomo, already something of a New York State institution.

Lehrman was nothing of the sort. For the most part, he was known as the inventor and grand poobah of Rite-Aid.

And yet when the final vote was tallied, Cuomo got 50 percent and Lehrman 47.5 percent. By less than just a couple hundred thousand votes, Lehrman had lost the governorship.

That's an awfully good showing for a guy previously known mostly for his drug stores. That's when I was first moved to write about the "evil genius" of Roger Ailes.

Which is what I thought it was back then. And what it remained.

Ailes,  got his man so close to the governor's mansion by creating an incredibly savvy TV image of Lehrman in his commercials -- a youngish, vigorous guy who was always photographed without a jacket and wearing redsuspenders.

Roger Ailes, who built Fox News into an empire, dies at 77

It was the red suspenders that did it. So help me, they probably added a half a million to his vote total.

Everything I had previously heard about Ailes' intuitive genius in political advertising (for, among others, Richard Nixon) was confirmed and by Lehrman's vote totals.

Fast forward to 1993 and CNBC. Ailes, a TV man through and through (he produced the Mike Douglas Show in the late '60's) becomes the head of CNBC, in charge of building a network audience from almost nothing.

Every night, Ailes had the brilliant idea of an acute political counterpoint show featuring intelligent, articulate and outspoken political women, to be called "Equal Time." This was a full four years before Barbara Walters realized that a room full of outspoken, often political, women could take over morning TV if you called it "The View."

Ailes' women on "Equal Time" were Mary Matalin and Jane Wallace. Right and Left incarnate, as they talked and laughed and interviewed guests. But they also were wildly funny. It was great and ground breaking televisio. Score one more for the TV genius of Roger Ailes.

And then came the grand Apotheosis of Roger Ailes in our time. In 1996, Ailes took everything he had figured out about cable news and created Fox News out of whole cloth. It pronounces itself "fair and balanced" but anyone who believed that it was actually in the "Equal Time" business was out to lunch.

It becomes blatantly conservative against most of TV News' grain and it does so in a way that is pure genius. What Ailes never forgets is how to keep things sparkling and bright in the theater of ideas.

When, for instance, Howard Kurtz originally began his weekly press critique called "Reliable Sources" on CNN, it wasn't a fraction as smooth or witty or insightful as "Fox News Watch," which featured Eric Burns and Neal Gabler, making up brilliantly for their deficiency of breaking news (Kurtz' specialty).

Everything a guy might know from producing cooking segments for Mike Douglas and bringing Lew Lehrman to within 15 feet of the governor's mansion was on display on Fox News, which promptly became the most watched of all cable-TV news networks.

He ran it for 20 years. His political power grew to almost unfathomable size. His canniness -- as appalling or exhilirating, depending on your point if view as it had ever been--never failed him. He was now having undeniable success by making sure most of his female reporters, commentators and hosts were blonde, attractive and frequently photographed with dresses that showed off their legs.

When tales of his private demands of his female staffers were suddenly hauled into public scrutiny by Gretchen Carlson, it was the perfect time for Rupert Murdoch's sons to get rid of a 20-year network monarch who had become too big for anyone's comfort.

Ailes, then, at the age of 77 was bounced out of Fox News, with investigations of claims by female staffers lined up and ready to go. He was humbled and exiled first. Then the same happened to his prime time star, Bill O'Reilly.

O'Reilly is another matter entirely but no one's going to convince me that if Ailes had lived, he would have disappeared.

No way. No matter what happened, the man who had virtually invented Lew Lehrman as a gubernatorial candidate as well as the smartest, all-female talk show ever put on television was certain to have figured out a plausible life after Fox News.

But he died this morning before we'd ever find out what it would be. The cause of death is, as yet, unknown but initial reports mentioned that he suffered from hemophilia and that he'd had a bad fall over the weekend.

As his death was announced, MSNBC and CNN were full of it, wall to wall, as the day began.

On Fox News, they were still stuck dealing with Robert Mueller's appointment as special counsel for the White House Russian investigation.

Ailes, you can bet, would have made a different call for the network he invented. In this case, he would have been right.


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