Roger Ailes Dies at 77

Fox News founder was former Garrison resident

By Chip Rowe

Roger Ailes, the former head of Fox News who spent the last decade of his life as a resident of Garrison and a political force in Philipstown, died on May 17 at age 77. According to a report by CNN, he fell at his Florida home eight days ago and hit his head, after which his condition deteriorated.

Roger Ailes (Fox News photo)

In a statement on May 17, his wife, Elizabeth Ailes, said: “I am profoundly sad and heartbroken to report that my husband, Roger Ailes, passed away this morning. Roger was a loving husband to me, to his son Zachary, and a loyal friend to many. He was also a patriot, profoundly grateful to live in a country that gave him so much opportunity to work hard, to rise — and to give back.

“During a career that stretched over more than five decades, his work in entertainment, in politics, and in news affected the lives of many millions. And so even as we mourn his death, we celebrate his life.”

“My doctor told me that I’m old, fat and ugly, but none of those things is going to kill me immediately,” Roger Ailes joked to Vanity Fair in 2013. “The actuaries say I have six to eight years. The best tables give me 10. Three thousand days, more or less. I’d give anything for another 10 years.”

“I’ve been prepared to face death all of my life,” he said. “When it comes, I’ll be fine, calm. I’ll miss life, though. Especially my family.”

The Aileses moved to Garrison in 2007 and a year later purchased the weekly Putnam County News & Recorder, based in Cold Spring. They proceeded to transform the paper into a vehicle that local critics assailed as a scaled-down version of the conservative Fox News, which Ailes founded in 1996. The couple moved to Florida late last year and sold the paper to its editor.

The Aileses were an influential but often contentious force in local politics. In 2014, they threatened to sue a Cold Spring Village Board member who wrote a critical post on Facebook, as well as a former board member who shared the post. Members of the Philipstown Town Board and Cold Spring Village Board frequently criticized the PCNR for its coverage and commentary, calling it inaccurate.

Elizabeth and Roger Ailes, at left, are shown at a ceremony in 2015 to announce that a new senior center would be named for him. (File photo by Michael Turton)

Ailes’ wider introduction to the community came at a 2010 public meeting over a draft revision of the Philipstown zoning code. Ailes demanded of the board: “Is it true that this document puts institutional interests above businesses and private citizens?”

Ailes resigned from Fox in 2016 after allegations by 25 women, including anchors Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly, that he had sexually harassed them at some point during his 50-year career in television. (He denied the allegations.) After his resignation, the Aileses withdrew a $500,000 pledge they had made toward a senior center to be constructed in Cold Spring and named for Roger Ailes.

Ailes was born in Warren, Ohio, on May 15, 1940. In what biographers have said was his “Rosebud” moment, his abusive father told Roger to jump from his bunk bed into his father’s arms. But as he leaped, his father stepped away. “Don’t ever trust anybody,” Robert Ailes supposedly said.

Roger Ailes when he was attending Ohio University

In 1962, after graduating from Ohio University, Ailes landed a job at The Mike Douglas Show. According to The Selling of the President, an account of the 1968 presidential race, Republican candidate Richard Nixon met Ailes on set in 1967 and said, “It’s a shame a man has to use gimmicks like this to get elected.” Ailes replied, “Television is not a gimmick.”

Impressed, Nixon hired Ailes to create campaign films. For better or worse, Ailes is credited with applying Hollywood and Madison Avenue to presidential politics, turning Nixon from a politician into a performer. Ailes became a sought-after political advisor and is credited with giving President Ronald Reagan the line from his 1984 debate when he was said to be too old: “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.”

Ailes moved into the news business in the early 1990s, saying television was more powerful than politics. After Ailes created a cable channel called America’s Talking for NBC, Rupert Murdoch in 1996 asked him to start Fox News Channel, which would revolutionize cable news.

According to a biography by Zev Chafets, Roger Ailes: Off Camera, Ailes began putting items aside in “memory boxes” for his son when Zachary was 4 years old, to be opened after his father’s death. Ailes showed Chafets the contents of one, which included a pocket-size copy of the Constitution, an anniversary card from Elizabeth (“It’s important for him to know that his mommy loved his daddy”), a program from a Fourth of July celebration in Garrison at which Ailes and Zachary read patriotic texts, biographies of Ronald Reagan, $2,000 in cash (“Here’s the allowance I owe you,” which Ailes said was an inside joke), gold coins (“If you have a little gold and a handgun, you can always get across the Canadian border”) and a copy of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.