Somehow — and that “somehow” is a no doubt fascinating story in its own right — Bob Woodward at The Washington Post has obtained a digital recording of a long, detailed conversation between Fox News correspondent KT McFarland and then-General David Petraeus in the spring of 2011 in Afghanistan during which McFarland:
A.) Urges Petraeus to run for president against Barack Obama;
B.) Tells Petraeus that she was instructed to carry that message to Petraeus by Fox News President Roger Ailes and its owner, Rupert Murdoch;
C.) Tells Petraeus that Fox would fully back his presidential campaign, and by fully back she means:
D.) Murdoch would finance the campaign. Ailes would leave Fox to run the campaign. And Fox News itself would become the house organ of the campaign. As McFarland puts it point blank, “The big boss is bankrolling it. Roger’s going to run it. And the rest of us are going to be your in-house.”
Throughout the conversation, Petraeus makes it clear repeatedly that he has no intention of running for president, and that was always my sense of him as well. He understood why others might want to project that future upon him, but he himself never gave the slightest public indication of interest in that career path.
I did have the benefit of an hour-long, one-on-one discussion with Petraeus in his office in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, several months before he became famous, and certainly long before any discussion of the presidency would have been germane. We talked instead about Iraq, counter-insurgency and military-media relations. The impression I got from that conversation, from my research and from following his subsequent career path was that Petraeus was of course a very good “political general.” He knew how to get what he wanted from the media, Congress and the bureaucracy. But he also had an infantryman’s disdain for issues such as abortion, tax rates, gun control and health-care reform, not to mention the fundraising and campaign-trail compromising that would be required. They held no interest for him. So his side of the conversation was no surprise.
On the other hand, the extent of the Fox involvement in attempting to woo Petraeus into the political world is pretty startling even to those of us who already see Fox as a blatantly political implement. And while I seriously doubt that Ailes would have actually left Fox to help Petraeus — he would have been more useful to the general/politician by staying where he is — the depth of the promised commitment is pretty clear.
At one point, in fact, McFarland explains why her bosses back home are so insistent on a Petraeus candidacy:
“Well, but . . . and here’s the thinking: that they’re nervous about. . . . They feel that Obama had this mandate. And the mandate — in his own mind. Obama wanted to do Obamacare. . . . He wanted to do environment, which is basically controlling all aspects of the economy. And education, which is the future. So he pushed for Obamacare. He got that done. They didn’t anticipate 2010 results. But he now is going to lie low and be very centrist so that they win in ’12 and they get the other two. Now, what they need — and this is not from the chiefs, this is from political people — and what they need to cement it so that it doesn’t get reversed is a third term. And that means 2016, they need to win, the Democrats need to win, and they need to win with their guy. Their kind of guy. So that then you’d have the stuff as locked in place for a generation. Nobody can come in like Reagan came in and reverse.”
Petraeus was to be the means by which that danger could be averted, which says something about how much they fear Obama and also how little faith they have in the Republican Party to produce winning candidates on its own. They saw him as a potential savior; he had no interest in being cast in that role.
Ailes, by the way, downplayed the story to the Post, as well as McFarland’s role as a messenger.
“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.”
Well, at least it shouldn’t be.
UPDATE: It’s also relevant to note how neatly this behavior dovetails with Murdoch’s very-cozy relationships with top politicians in Great Britain, where he reportedly tried to act as a kingmaker with prime ministers dating back to the time of John Major, if not earlier.
– Jay Bookman