LOS ANGELES — When I heard about Rogers Ailes’ death on Thursday morning, I had an immediate flashback to Oct. 9, 1990, when Rep. Lynn Martin, R-Ill., was making a run for the Senate, battling Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill.
That was the day that Ailes, at a Chicago press conference, called Simon a “weenie” and “slimy.”
Many people associate Ailes with his leadership of Fox News, forging it into a conservative network with the dubious claim of always being “fair and balanced” when many of its shows, not all, thrive on attacking the left. His downfall at Fox came in the wake of sexual harassment allegations.
Before Fox, Ailes was a major Republican political consultant.
In 1984, Ailes worked for then-Sen. Charles Percy, R-Ill., advising him on media and debate prep. In 1988, Ailes handled President George H.W. Bush’s campaign, cementing his reputation as a master of negative campaigning.
By 1990, when Martin hired Ailes as her media consultant, she also bought his baggage as a mudslinger. Simon turned that into a bonus, using Ailes’ slash-and-burn tactics to raise money.
“As far as I’m concerned, I’m running against Roger Ailes as much as Lynn Martin,” Simon said in a fundraising letter.
Fast forward to Oct. 9, 1990. Polls put Martin way behind Simon.
Simon, wanting to sit on his lead, had just canceled a debate with Martin — using as a pretext that there was some “urgent” Senate business.
The reality was that Simon, advised at the time by David Axelrod, who got his start in politics in Simon’s 1984 Senate bid, didn’t want to give the cash-strapped Martin any television time if he didn’t have to.
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To react to the debate news — and grab some free publicity — Ailes called a press conference at the Hyatt Regency Hotel on Wacker Drive.
He was in Chicago to prep Martin for debate and to work on a new round
of TV spots, even though Martin, running out of money, had to stop
The ostensible reason Ailes called the press conference was to “defend” Martin and himself from Simon and his attack ads against Martin, which amounted to “slander,” Ailes said.
“Simon is being Simon,” Ailes said, “which unfortunately is being slimy.”
“The reality is he’s been hitting me and I’ve decided to punch back,” said Ailes. “If he likes to do that, that’s fine. I’m not going to be a punching bag for him. I’m not going to stand around. I mean the guy is a weenie, come on.”
I remember chasing Ailes out of the press conference, tossing him a few questions as the elevator door at the Hyatt Regency was closing.
Martin was not at Ailes’ press conference. Later that day, in a wry a statement, Martin allowed only: “I am sorry that he [Ailes] called him a weenie.”
The debate was eventually rescheduled.
Simon won that Senate race and returned to Washington. A few years later, the new phenomena in political communications — right-wing radio, marked by the rise of Rush Limbaugh — became a political force during the Bill Clinton presidency, fueled by all the Clinton scandals.
Fox News was launched in 1996, during the Clinton years and with Roger Ailes as its president, moving from politics to television. Under Ailes, Fox became the outlet of choice for influential conservatives, Republicans, conspiracy theorists and a coterie of reporters and anchors who do mainstream news.
Ailes sex scandals led to his ouster from Fox. He ended up a “weenie” and “slimy.”
Back in 1990, who knew.