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…

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