Neil Cavuto — Westbury native, a Fox News anchor since its launch on Oct. 7, 1996, and host of “Your World with Neil Cavuto” — is now back on the air after triple-bypass surgery sidelined him from May 27 through Sept. 7. He will anchor Fox Business’ debate coverage from Hofstra Monday, Sept. 26. We spoke earlier this week about his recovery, the debates, and the biggest controversy in Fox News’ 20-year history, the sexual harassment charges against FNC founder Roger Ailes, and his subsequent departure. An edited version of our conversation:
How’s your health and what was the lead-up to your surgery? [Cavuto, 57, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis years ago, and also long ago beat Stage 4 Hodgkin’s lymphoma.]
Every day is a gift. I’m slowly getting better. I had just done a physical but the one thing I had not done was the stress test. I’d been complaining about tiredness, and thought [the MS] could be progressing. [My doctor] said let’s get a complete physical . . . when I had the stress test, I knew something was wrong because these guys in white lab coats were descending on me.
The Ailes sexual harassment controversy broke in July when Gretchen Carlson filed her lawsuit, and Ailes left July 21. Your first reaction?
I thought I had a medical reaction. I was just a few days [out of the hospital] and thought I had taken too many of those pills. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t fathom it. In retrospect, it’s probably best I was at home. I felt for my staff and people and everyone going through this upheaval.
But you also wrote a blistering Op-Ed [on the website Business Insider] in support of Ailes, and labeled those who had said he had sexually harassed them “sick.” What was the genesis of that reaction?
I wrote it of my own volition. This was so alien to me, and what I was hearing was so alien. It was all news to me and this was not the guy I knew. I had been in many meetings, and in environments with women and without women and none of this has evidenced itself. I was just speaking as a friend who did not recognize this individual.
Do you regret labeling his detractors “sick?” [More than 20 women have accused Ailes of harassment, according to reports. In Business Insider, Cavuto wrote, “Take it from a guy with an illness: These accusations don’t remotely resemble the Roger that I know — that we know — are just ... sick.”]
It’s done. You just have to move on. I just found my knee-jerk reaction as a guy at home who through all of this was getting calls from Roger and others wishing me well.
In those calls, did you discuss the lawsuit and controversy that was enveloping him?
He just called to see how I was doing. A lot of times it was very hard for me to talk, period, but maybe looking back, I marvel because at the time [the calls] had everything to do with me and how I was recovering and feeling.
The fallout, of course, has been profound. How has it affected you and the rest of the organization?
The first thing I did as soon as I got back was meet with my staff on various shows, and tried to get a sense of where they were. A lot are very young and it’s scary. They don’t know what’s up. But there’s only so much we can control — take it from me after going through a stress test and getting a three-month departure — but I did try to urge them all to look at the bigger picture and deal with the things we can control, which is our show.
Did you have a “first man” clause [contractual language allowing one to leave Fox if Ailes were to leave] and did you think of leaving?
I did not have such a clause and never had it at CNBC or NBC either, but something I remember was that I was eventually going to return and didn’t know what I was going to return to. The best judge are the ratings [and] maybe that message — “let’s focus on what we do and do right” — and things will take care of themselves. Viewers have stuck by us and that’s what we can control.
Ailes was, of course, intimately wrapped into the DNA of Fox — how can he be unwrapped from it?
When I was out all this summer, I liked to think I was vital to Fox News, and there I was at home, watching the conventions and they had the nerve to have those conventions going on the air without me. I couldn’t believe it. I was shocked. The irony is the old line — the graveyard is filled with people who thought they were indispensable. Life can go on. The country went on after FDR and that seemed inconceivable. Apple went on after Steve Jobs. I mention those because the moment you think an individual is bigger than the organization, you later find out that if it’s the right organization, it will do just fine.
The debate will likely be ferocious. How will viewers cut through all that heat?
The debates are all about IQ and EQ, or emotional quotient — how smart and presentable they are — but EQ wins over IQ, or the way you emotionally present yourself to viewers. Many people who listened [on radio] to the first JFK/Nixon debate thought Nixon won, those who watched thought Kennedy did. His ease and humor won the day. ... We remember those little things that register and we don’t know what those will be, but I know that if you’re Donald Trump, you have to ease people away from the notion that you make them nervous as hell, and if Hillary, you have to go out of your way to show people that you’re not detached and remote.
What will the moment be that people remember?
It’s always something you didn’t see coming, but there is more pressure on a candidate like Trump because you don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression.
Does the moderator — in this case Lester Holt — end up becoming a fight referee, incapable of separating the warring candidates?
It’s obviously extremely difficult. You can’t control the charges they make but you want to pin them on specifics. They’ll make their basic arguments and we know their strategies in the most general sense. It’s up to the questioner to say, for example, on their economic platforms, “how do you pay for it?”