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January 25, 1988: Orchestrated Bush-Rather Interview Helps Solidify Bush’s Campaign Chances

Dan Rather interviews Vice President Bush, watching him on a monitor. Neither Rather nor the CBS viewers can see Bush’s consultant Roger Ailes off-camera.Dan Rather interviews Vice President Bush, watching him on a monitor. Neither Rather nor the CBS viewers can see Bush’s consultant Roger Ailes off-camera. [Source: Media Research Center]Roger Ailes, a former media consultant to the Nixon administration (see Summer 1970), comes up with a bold plan to help his new client, Vice President George H.W. Bush, who is running for president. Bush is neck-deep in the Iran-Contra scandal (see Before July 28, 1986, August 6, 1987, and December 25, 1992) and, as reporter Tim Dickinson will later write, comes across as “effete” in comparison to his predecessor Ronald Reagan. Ailes decides to use an interview with combative CBS News reporter Dan Rather to bolster his client’s image. Ailes insists that the interview be done live, instead of in the usual format of being recorded and then edited for broadcast. Dickinson will later write, “That not only gave the confrontation the air of a prizefight—it enabled Ailes himself to sit just off-camera in Bush’s office, prompting his candidate with cue cards.” Rather is in the CBS studio in New York and has no idea Ailes is coaching Bush. As planned, Bush begins the interview aggressively, falsely accusing Rather of misleading him by focusing the interview on Iran-Contra. (It is true that CBS had not informed the Bush team that it would air a report on the Iran-Contra investigation as a lead-in to the Bush interview, a scheduling that some in the Bush team see as a “bait-and-switch.”) When Rather begins to press Bush, Ailes flashes a cue card: “walked off the air.” This is a set piece that Bush and Ailes have worked out beforehand, based on an embarrassing incident in Rather’s recent past, when Rather angrily walked off the CBS set after learning that his newscast had been pre-empted by a women’s tennis match. Clenching his fist, Ailes mouths at Bush: “Go! Go! Just kick his ass!” Bush fires his rejoinder: “It’s not fair to judge my whole career by a rehash on Iran. How would you like it if I judged your career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set?” In their 1989 book The Acting President: Ronald Reagan and the Supporting Players Who Helped Him Create the Illusion That Held America Spellbound, CBS host Bob Schieffer and co-author Gary Paul Gates will write: “What people in the bureau and viewers at home could not see was that the response had not been entirely spontaneous. As the interview progressed, the crafty Ailes had stationed himself beside the camera. If Bush seemed to be struggling for a response, Ailes would write out a key word in huge letters on his yellow legal pad and hold it just beneath the camera in Bush’s line of vision. Just before Bush had shouted that it was not fair to judge his career on Iran, Ailes had written out on his legal pad the words.… Three times during the interview, Bush’s answer had come after Ailes had prompted him with key words or phrases scribbled on the legal pad.” Dickinson will later write: “It was the mother of all false equivalencies: the fleeting petulance of a news anchor pitted against the high crimes of a sitting vice president. But it worked as TV.” Ailes’s colleague Roger Stone, who worked with Ailes on the 1968 Nixon campaign, will later say of the interview: “That bite of Bush telling Rather off played over and over and over again. It was a perfect example of [Ailes] understanding the news cycle, the dynamics of the situation, and the power of television.” [Associated Press, 7/6/1989; NewsBusters, 1/25/2008; Rolling Stone, 5/25/2011] After the interview is concluded, Bush leaps to his feet and, with the microphone still live, says: “The b_stard didn’t lay a glove on me.… Tell your g_ddamned network that if they want to talk to me to raise their hands at a press conference. No more Mr. Inside stuff after that.” The unexpected aggression from Bush helps solidify his standing with hardline Republicans. The interview gives more “proof” to those same hardliners that the media is hopelessly liberal, “their” candidates cannot expect to be treated fairly, and that the only way for them to “survive” encounters with mainstream media figures is through aggression and intimidation. [Salon, 1/26/2011] Conservative commentator Rich Noyes will write in 2008 that Bush’s jab at Rather exposed the reporter’s “liberal bias,” though he will fail to inform his readers of Ailes’s off-camera coaching. [NewsBusters, 1/25/2008]

Entity Tags: Rich Noyes, CBS News, Bob Schieffer, Dan Rather, George Herbert Walker Bush, Tim Dickinson, Gary Paul Gates, Roger Stone, Roger Ailes, Ronald Reagan

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda, Elections Before 2000

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