Is Roger Ailes Trying to Protect America From Sarah Palin?

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The Fox News boss is worried about his national legacy and electing a new president in 2012. Signs suggest he doesn't think his network's favorite Alaskan will be it.

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If you haven't read Gabriel Sherman's profile of Roger Ailes in New York magazine, do yourself a favor and read it now. There's plenty of great stuff in it, but what interested me most was the picture it painted of Ailes's fraught relationship with Sarah Palin. Ailes is, of course, the genius -- some would say "evil genius" -- who built Fox News and seems to have an unerring instinct for what the conservative masses will respond to. He instantly recognized Palin as a star, and a major ratings-booster, and after the 2008 election signed her to a multimillion-dollar contract at Fox News, where she has become a major draw.

This was undoubtedly a shrewd business move. But as Sherman's piece reveals, Ailes has entered his autumn years and is taking a more expansive view of his role in American political life. He doesn't want to be thought of as a Republican hatchet man. Rather, he has come to feel that he is worthy -- deserving, actually -- of a reputation as a great powerbroker, or architect, of the modern Republican Party, in which capacity he would like to elect a president so that one and all will finally recognize his greatness. Trouble is, the lunatic asylum he's fostered at Fox News, and its pernicious influence on the conservative base, has made this task much more difficult.

Sherman puts Palin forward as Exhibit A. While she's been a smash at Fox News, she is emblematic of the far-right, grievance-driven politics that have swept the conservative base (it wasn't always so). She's probably not electable. Ailes, no dummy, understands this and, Sherman suggests, recognizes his own complicity. "He thinks things are going in a bad direction," a Republican close to Ailes told Sherman. "Roger is worried about the future of the country. ... He thinks Palin is an idiot. He thinks she's stupid. He helped boost her up. People like Sarah Palin haven't elevated the conservative moment."

This presents Ailes with a problem, and the rest of us with a delicious irony: Ailes's business success with Fox News is directly at odds with his political ambition to elect a Republican president. What will he do? Which will he favor? And implicit in that question, would he prefer Palin run for president or stay put at Fox?

Yesterday, after Sherman's story broke, Ailes's righthand man and probable successor at Fox News released this statement to The New York Times:

I know for a fact that Roger Ailes admires and respects Sarah Palin and thinks she is smart. He also believes many members of the left-wing media are extremely terrified and threatened by her. Despite a massive effort to destroy Sarah Palin, she is still on her feet and making a difference in the political world. As for the 'Republican close to Ailes' for which the incorrect Palin quote is attributed, when Roger figures out who that is, I guarantee you he or she will no longer be "close to Ailes."

Now, obviously Ailes had to respond to Sherman's story. Not doing so would be its own response. But how he responded could go a long way in determining Palin's next move. Ailes is, as Sherman points out, the de facto head of the Republican Party, employing or having recently employed five prospective Republican candidates, including Palin. If Ailes wanted her to run, he could push her out of the nest as he did Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, or pressure her to make a decision, which she wouldn't appreciate, as with Mike Huckabee. Instead, we have a statement that looks to me as though it were designed, like Shiatsu massage, to sooth all of Palin's pressure points--her intellectual insecurity ("she is smart"), her paranoid streak and obsession with loyalty ("Roger Ailes admires and respects Sarah Palin") and the broader question of her power ("the left-wing media are extremely terrified and threatened by her" and she is "making a difference in the political world"). Message: No need to run for president, Sarah! You're super powerful right here at Fox!

Maybe Ailes really is thinking about his role in history, and the possibility of a Republican presidential disaster in 2012. And what's more, having loosed Sarah Palin on America these last few years, it sure looks to me from that statement like Ailes is now trying to protect us from her.

Image credit: Fred Prouser/Reuters

Drop-down image credit: Reuters

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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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