Roger Ailes, the Fox News CEO deposed after an avalanche of sexual harassment accusations, has been debate coaching Donald Trump. While the campaign disavows his official involvement, there is no doubt Ailes has Trump’s ear. He’s one of the most influential voices guiding Trump as he preps to debate Hillary Clinton.
News reports say Ailes speaks with Trump by phone regularly and attends debate prep sessions in person. No matter how hard Trump’s campaign staff wishes Ailes away, they know Trump will listen to and be influenced by him.
Trump’s inner businessman respects a good resume and his showman craves attention. Ailes has the track record to align Trump with legendary Republican presidents and inspire one liners that become headliners.
Before launching Fox News, Ailes spent decades advising Republican presidential candidates on debates and media. He helped repackage Richard Nixon for the television era in 1968, and coached Ronald Reagan (aka “The Gipper”) and George H.W. Bush in debates in the ‘80s.
Coach Ailes will attempt to package Trump’s soundbites and persona into a winning debate message. His key strategy will be to craft a packaged message for Trump to present in a seemingly authentic manner. There is a fine line between sticking to a script and being stuck in the mud delivering it – and Trump largely fails when scripted.
I dug out the communications book Ailes wrote in 1988, “You Are the Message.” For its time it was a great book and, in many ways, it was a blueprint for Ailes’ success in building Fox News – the network conservatives love and liberals hate. No matter what side of the political fence you lean, you have to admit the man knows how to package a story whether or not you like the message.
Ailes is a master at wordsmithing memorable one liners that land like punches in the gut. Trump is a master jabber improvising in the ring. No doubt his trainer Ailes has been working on counterpunching, the kind that land big headlines and perhaps even a knockout blow to swing campaign fight momentum to Trump.
In fact, Ailes helped orchestrate one of the great presidential debate knockouts of all time. In “You Are the Message,” Ailes tells the story of how he was brought in to train Ronald Reagan after he lost a presidential debate.
Over the objections of other campaign advisors, Ailes convinced Reagan to be himself in the debate. A relaxed Reagan went on to deliver perhaps the greatest counterpunching knockout in the long history of political debates.
Knowing Reagan’s age would be called into question against the younger Walter Mondale, Ailes prepared him to land a knockout blow. Reagan deadpanned, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
What made the moment pure debate perfection was not just the words, but the entire delivery. Body language, facial expression, timing and tone all perfectly synchronized for authentic impact, memorability and repeatability.
If anyone can help Trump deliver a knockout blow, it’s Ailes. Yet Trump is no Ronald Reagan. Not even close. While both found fame in media entertainment – Reagan in films and Trump on television – their differences are as stark as night and day.
If they were cut from the same cloth, Trump would be a dream Republican candidate instead of the divisive one he is. Yet personally and presidentially, Reagan and Trump appear to be political and personal extremes.
Personally, Reagan had a life partner in Nancy. Many would say Trump’s wives are business partners at best and trophies at worst.
From a domestic policy standpoint, you could never doubt that Reagan loved the USA. His love of our country dripped from his rhetoric and oozed from his pores on camera. The only thing that oozes from Trump’s persona is a love of making and flaunting money.
In terms of foreign policy, Reagan hated Soviet-era power and worked to defeat it. He would have hated KGB-agent-turned-president Vladimir Putin, his personality and politics. Trump seems to admire Putin’s ruthlessness and even welcomes business dealings with him.
During Reagan’s presidency, America’s foreign policy was as strong and steadfast as the man himself. Both fans and enemies perceived Reagan as a man of his word who acted based upon genuine principles. President Reagan was authentic.
Ailes cannot magically transform the Trumper into the Gipper. He must convince America that Donald Trump is an authentic leader in his own right – one driven by more than ego, power and greed. He needs Donald Trump to be a candidate of substance and the message of competence, not just empty soundbites of arrogance.