By William K. Alcorn
WARREN — Roger Ailes, chairman of Fox News and former Republican presidential campaign insider, says Democratic President-elect Barack Obama has inherited bigger challenges than any incoming president in history.
The major issues, as Ailes sees them, are: political and economic division of the citizenry; military challenges around the world; and “unbelievable” economic pressures.
“At the same time, they give him his greatest opportunities,” Ailes said of Obama.
The president-elect has to remind Americans that America is exceptional, said Ailes, a 1958 graduate of Warren G. Harding High School.
“We have fed more people and freed more people than any country in history. Obama needs to focus Americans on personal responsibility,” he said, talking informally with a dozen of his 1958 Harding classmates, including this writer, Monday afternoon.
Ailes said he met for an hour with Obama and found him bright and consistently liberal.
“If he [Obama] wants to bring the nation together, as he says, now is the time to reach out” to other viewpoints, Ailes said.
Ailes, a personal friend of conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh’s, admitted he is disappointed that a conservative did not win the White House. He said he thought GOP candidate John McCain had a chance until the economic collapse. After that, the outcome of the election was inevitable, he said.
He doubts that the economic free fall has hit bottom. He said his boss, Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News Corporation and Fox Broadcasting, thinks “we have a couple of years of tough sledding ahead.”
Ailes, who says he has been out of politics for 20 years, was the communications and media consultant for the successful campaigns of GOP Presidents Nixon, Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.
He returned home to be the keynote speaker at the dedication this morning of the new Trumbull County Veterans’ Memorial on the west side of Courthouse Square in downtown Warren. The unveiling of the memorial, which contains the statue of a life-sized Marine atop a 6-foot limestone base, is at 11 a.m.
The Western Reserve Veteran’s Memorial Association and the business and civic group Trumbull 100 raised $446,000 for the memorial through donations, a state grant and the sale of bricks on a wall recognizing local veterans, including an unspecified gift from Ailes.
Ailes said he was moved to support the memorial by the memory of his best boyhood friend, Douglas M. Webster, a Navy pilot killed in a training accident during the Vietnam War. Webster died Dec. 5, 1965, at 24, when his A-4 Skyhawk fell off an elevator on the side of the USS Ticonderoga aircraft carrier into water 3 miles deep off the coast of Yokosuka, Japan.
Webster, who grew up on Edgewood Street Northeast, graduated in 1959 from Harding, where he was vice president of his class. He graduated in 1964 from The Ohio State University, where he was co-captain of the gymnastics team.
“We went downtown to join the Marine Corps, but the recruiting office was closed,” Ailes said of himself and Webster.
So, they turned to the Air Force.
“Both of us wanted to fly, but my eyes were bad. He got in, I didn’t. I guess there is a certain amount of survivor guilt there,” he said.
Ailes spent some time driving around Warren on Monday, visiting the areas where he grew up and where his grandparents had lived. He said it was “heartbreaking” to drive through the city’s downtown and see all the stores and theaters gone. The only thing left is the Saratoga Restaurant, he said.
He did, however, take his 8-year-old son, Zach, to the Hot Dog Shoppe on West Market, as promised, and found the place crowded and the hot dogs as he remembered them.
Ailes, who has a great memory, reminisced with his classmates about teachers and classes, and some of the fun they had going to school and living in Warren.
He got his start in entertainment in the drama club at Harding.
“I liked to get out of class and I wasn’t a great athlete. That left the theater,” said Ailes, who starred in productions of “Mister Roberts” and “A Man Called Peter,” among others.
After graduating from Ohio University, Ailes landed a job on the “Mike Douglas Show,” then broadcast out of Cleveland. He later became a media consultant for Republican candidates, and then moved back into television news in recent years.
Ailes admits he is not always well-liked.
He thinks journalists are biased and criticized the lack of depth of reporting on both candidates during the campaign. He thinks “we’re in a little bit of trouble because of the public educational system.”
“I stand up for what I believe. I don’t back off. I’ve been that way for 40 years. That’s the secret to my success. I have thick skin. I don’t care what people say about me,” he said.
“I defend the United States, Israel and the Constitution. That’s when I get my death threats,” he said.
Letting his feelings show about America, he said: “We’re not a perfect nation. But the question is, if the U.S. is destroyed, what would the world be like?”
Gene Fowler, who lived on Clermont Northeast growing up, was one of the people who visited with Ailes on Monday. Fowler said he and Ailes became good friends at McKinley School and were in Boy Scout Troop 5 together at the school.
“When we were in the first or second grade, Roger took me to the neighborhood Isaly’s Dairy and bought me my first malt,” Fowler said.
Betty Cecconi Fluharty sat in front of Ailes in a ninth-grade civics class at Turner. “He told me one day he was going to be president of the United States. He didn’t make it, but he probably has a better job now anyway,” she said.