Editor's note: this column is an excerpt from "Nixon's Secrets"
No American President had a more tortured relationship with television than Richard Nixon. As a Vice Presidential candidate Nixon salvaged his career with the televised “Checkers” speech to defend himself from charges of corruption. His poor appearance in the first 1960 debate with John Kennedy is credited with losing him that close election.
Key to his political comeback in 1968, Nixon found more innovative ways to utilize the medium of television and soften his image. It was twenty-eight-year-old Roger Ailes who transformed this image through the remarkable use of television.
Ailes knew television. On January 9, 1968, he met Nixon backstage. The candidate was scheduled for an on-air interview with Douglas.
“It’s a shame a man has to use gimmicks like this to get elected,” Nixon said, flippantly.
“Television is not a gimmick,” Ailes said. “Mr. Nixon, you need a media advisor.”
“What’s a media advisor?” Nixon asked.
“I am,” Ailes answered.
Roger Ailes recognized that instead of changing Nixon, it would be easier to control the medium. He knew if the campaign was putting out the product, every detail was under their direction. “Those stupid bastards on the set designing crew put turquoise curtains in the background,” Ailes said as they designed a set in Chicago prior to the fall campaign. “Nixon wouldn’t look right unless he was carrying a pocketbook.”
Ailes worked to erase Nixon’s image as a partisan slasher by making him look calmer, more mature, more balanced, and more measured. He made Nixon look like a statesman who was knowledgeable, firm, and experienced. Just as important, Ailes schooled Nixon on how to work with the camera to avoid looking shifty and, above all, to seem like he had the gravitas to be president.
More importantly, Ailes created a Nixon that appeared spontaneous, as if he was risking all. This new, no-holds-barred Nixon was put on display in a variety of settings, and even spun into the counter-culture.