Roger Ailes Plays Nice

Under fire, Ailes turned surprisingly mellow. "I’d like to hire Hillary Clinton,” he said. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Roger Ailes, the combative conservative behind Fox News, is sounding strangely reasonable these days, going easy on top Democrats—even Hillary Clinton!—and subtly distancing himself from the inflammatory Glenn Beck.

When I spoke with him shortly after the publication of two scathing magazine profiles depicting the chairman as power mad, paranoid, and a GOP puppeteer, Ailes was in a strikingly upbeat mood. When the climate is calm, he loves to stir up trouble, as when he told me last fall that NPR executives were "Nazis." But part of his genius is that when he faces hostile fire, Ailes can turn unexpectedly mellow, the better to make his critics look like the loony ones.

There was this, for instance, from the man who conferred cable stardom on Sarah Palin: "I'd like to hire Hillary Clinton. She looks unhappy at the State Department. She'd get ratings."

He plays down his role as a GOP kingmaker, though he confirmed that he invited New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to dinner (while denying he urged Christie to jump into the race). Ailes admires Christie's budget-cutting prowess, but says the governor told him, "I'm not running—my wife would kill me." In the next breath Ailes salutes New York's cost-cutting Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, saying he could also "be a great presidential candidate … if he can clean up Albany."

Ailes told me he met with Palin in his Manhattan office, serving chicken sandwiches and giving her parents and daughter Piper a tour of the Fox studios. Palin told him she'll decide on a White House bid this summer. Denying a New York magazine report that he called the former Alaska governor an idiot, Ailes marveled at the frenzy surrounding her tour of historic sites: "She's so smart she's got the press corps running up the whole East Coast behind her bus."

As for Anthony Weiner, the Brooklyn Democrat being pilloried over an underwear photo mysteriously sent to a young woman from his Twitter account, Ailes told his newsroom to "move on" unless there were new developments. "The media's had enough giggles over Mr. Weiner and his name," Ailes says. "Sometimes the families take a bigger hit than the person that people are trying to destroy."

It was a tougher sell when I invited him to say something positive about the man most frequently bashed on his channel, Barack Obama. Ailes offered this: "He shot that SOB in the head that killed 3,000 Americans. That was his finest hour."

Ailes can still get riled by personal criticism, dismissing as "fantasy" and "fiction" a Rolling Stone report that he travels with a large security detail and has blast-resistant office windows. He invited me to throw a rock at the glass—and promised security would arrest me.

The onetime GOP operative with a pugnacious style has built Fox into the top-rated cable news network that paints nearly everyone else as biased. Ailes sometimes seems to flout the conventions that constrain other news executives, allowing his channel's identity to become intertwined with that of the Republican Party. By hiring not just Palin but Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum (who are running for president) and Mike Huckabee (who opted out), Ailes put himself at the epicenter of the 2012 campaign—and kept the candidates off rival networks.

But Ailes has his limits. After multiple meetings with Beck, whose incendiary rhetoric was growing hotter, they agreed to divorce. Given Beck's outside projects, Ailes says, "his goals were different from our goals?… I need people focused on a daily television show."

Ailes says he sometimes discusses issues with the Fox & Friends hosts but laughs at the notion he hands them talking points. As for Rolling Stone's charge that he has "built the most formidable propaganda machine ever seen outside of the Communist bloc," Ailes does a bit of jujitsu, accusing NBC, CBS, ABC, The New York Times, and the rest of running "a liberal propaganda machine … If they did fair and balanced news, we'd be out of business."

Now that's the Roger Ailes who drives his detractors crazy.