Roger Ailes isn’t quite denying that he tried to entice David Petraeus to run for president.
After all, in the wake of a secret recording showing that a Fox contributor carried that message to the general in Kabul, that would be hard to do.
Instead, the Fox News chairman is trying to minimize the fallout from a Bob Woodward scoop that shows him trying to meddle in Republican politics—in precisely the way his worst critics might imagine.
The onetime Republican strategist isn’t shy about keeping his hand in the political game. He met with Mitt Romney and other GOP contenders as they geared up to run in 2012, telling Romney over a pasta dinner that he needed to loosen up on the air. Ailes always says such meetings don’t influence his network’s coverage.
This time, the Washington Post story says that K.T. McFarland, a Fox contributor and former national security aide in three Republican administrations, told Petraeus that if he ran, Ailes might quit Fox and help his campaign—and that network owner Rupert Murdoch might “bankroll” the effort.
“Rupert’s after me as well,” Petraeus replied.
According to the tape, McFarland said she was carrying “advice” from Ailes: that Petraeus should only accept an offer from President Obama to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “If you’re offered anything else, don’t take it; resign in six months and run for president,” she told the general.
In his interview with Woodward, Ailes dismissed the taped conversation as “more of a joke, a wiseass way I have,” he said. But in the next comment he conceded its essence: “I thought the Republican field [in the primaries] needed to be shaken up and Petraeus might be a good candidate.”
Ailes suggested McFarland had taken things too far: “It sounds like she thought she was on a secret mission in the Reagan administration. . . . She was way out of line. . . . It’s someone’s fantasy to make me a kingmaker. It’s not my job.”
In fairness, we have no way of knowing whether McFarland was freelancing, or going well beyond some casual conversation with Ailes to ingratiate herself with Petraeus (she even asked what Fox could be doing better). We also have no way of knowing who taped the conversation and who leaked it. Fox had no further comment on Tuesday.
Ailes, who makes no secret of his conservative views, sometimes straddles that line between network boss and political operative, and in this case he went way over it. Suggesting that a major military leader run for president is not exactly in keeping with a news channel that boasts of being fair and balanced.
Can you imagine how Fox’s conservative corps would have reacted if the president of NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN or MSNBC privately had an emissary tell Hillary Clinton she should run in 2016? And the dangling of financial support from Murdoch is no idle boast—he has made seven-figure contributions to the Republican Party.
Petraeus, of course, rejected the advice—he said his wife would divorce him if he ran for president—and took the CIA job, resigning when his affair with Paula Broadwell was exposed.
Ailes may be making light of his political flirtation with Petraeus, but given his job as a senior News Corp. executive, it is no joke.