The Selling of the President (Excerpt)

In this excerpt from Joe McGinniss’s Byliner Classic, Richard Nixon’s media team prepares the candidate for a television appearance in 1968. As Roger Ailes reflects, “This is it. This is the way they’ll be elected forevermore.”

  1. Paul Keyes continued to check the set. “Roger, can you put that camera one in closer so RN will be physically conscious of it?”

    Ailes explained why moving the camera would be a problem.

    “I know that,” Keyes said. “But this was the one specific thing he asked for this morning. That we give him a camera close enough so he would be physically conscious of it. He wants this to be a very intimate show between him and the American people. And the only way he can do it is if that camera is right on top of him.”

    Ailes explained more of the technical problems.

    “But RN wants to converse tonight. Low key, easy, informal. He doesn’t want to make a speech. And he needs the camera there to push him into the low key.”

    Ailes rearranged the cameras.

    “Okay,” Paul Keyes said, “now, can four come in a little closer?” “Yeah, but if I bring four in—” “He needs it close, Roger.” “Okay. You position four where you want it and I’ll restage. “ Paul Keyes stared at the cameras.

    “Is four better than the crane camera?” Roger Ailes said. “Yes. For his needs tonight.” “Then the crane is dead. We don’t even need it. But that means we can’t get a shot of Wilkinson at all because to take it we have to take the other camera. See, the best shot of RN is in the crane but if that’s not close enough to give the effect he needs, we won’t use it.”

    “I know it’s a problem,” Paul Keyes said. “But he needs the camera up close. He’ll be talking to the camera, not to Bud. He wants to go into the living room.”

    Finally, Ailes found a way to move the crane camera in over Bud Wilkinson’s shoulder and provide the “physical presence” Richard Nixon needed.

    “Perfect,” Paul Keyes said. “I know that will do it for him.”

    “Of course that kills my opening shot completely,” Ailes said. “It’s also going to kill the shot of the audience on one.”

    But Keyes was not concerned with this. “That camera might as well be Wilkinson to the Old Man,” he was saying.

    “But if the crane has to be in that close you’re never going to get Wilkinson in the foreground. You’ll never see the relationship between the two men. Does it have to be that close?”

    “It has to be close, Roger. How far back would you want it?” “I need another two feet.” “Two feet, okay. If that will serve your purposes we can compromise. But it can’t go out any further.” “It’s almost not worth the compromise. Frankly, it’s not that great a shot. … Wait a minute, is four any good or is that too far away?” “Four is perfect. The important thing is the relationship between him and the camera. He needs that nearness.” “Okay,” Roger Ailes said, and told the floor manager to mark with tape how far forward and to the left camera four could go without moving into the range of any of the other cameras. “Just tell RN he’ll have that one camera he can play to and we’ll screw around with the others,” Roger Ailes said, and the problem was solved.

    Paul Keyes sat in the chair that had been brought out for Richard Nixon. “It’s too loose. It’s got to have a solid back to it.” “Okay, I’ll take care of that,” Roger Ailes said, and he went slowly back to the control room and called the set designer and told him they needed another chair. The designer protested. “Do you want him to tip over?” Ailes said. “The back is loose. Do you want him to lean back and go over on his ass?” The designer suggested using an orange chair he had brought out earlier. “Goddamn it, no, we’re not going to use an orange chair. We’ve been through that … I said we’re not going to use an orange chair … well, fuck it, then. Forget it. I’ll get the goddamn chair.” He put down the phone and turned to Dolores Hardie, the assistant.

    “Get Bob Dwan to get a goddamn chair. I told that creepy bastard of a designer as soon as he brought it out that we weren’t going to use an orange chair.”

    It was four o’clock in the afternoon. Frank Shakespeare was worried about the studio getting too hot.

    “Make sure you’ve got that handkerchief soaked in witch hazel,” Roger Ailes told someone. “I can’t do that sincerity bit with the camera if he’s sweating.”

    Shakespeare got more worried about the temperature. “He’s going to be out there four hours tonight.”

    It was decided to cancel the five o’clock rehearsal of the opening so the lights could be shut off, the studio sealed, and cold air piped in. Roger Ailes went across the hall to a dressing room and lay down on a couch.

    “This is the beginning of a whole new concept,” Ailes said. “This is it. This is the way they’ll be elected forevermore. The next guys up will have to be performers.

    “The interesting question is, how sincere is a TV set? If you take a cold guy and stage him warm, can you get away with it? I don’t know. But I felt a lot better about jumping out of that plane yesterday than I do about this thing tonight.”

    The announcer who was to do the opening called to ask if his tone was too shrill.

    “Yeah, we don’t want it like a quiz show,” Roger Ailes said. “He’s going to be presidential tonight so announce presidentially.”

    ***

    Preview more of Joe McGinniss's The Selling of the President.

Originally published in Byliner, September 2012

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