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Angry White Man

To understand the shifting tectonics of American politics, look no further than cable's high priest of populism, Lou Dobbs.


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He is, in short, his own man. And unlike Buchanan, Dobbs holds your attention on-screen and in person. Because despite the hammering rhetoric, Dobbs in person is amiable and funny, simply a decent sort of guy. The kind of man you'd like to meet up with for a drink, who seamlessly finds a way to open the door for you, and who'll tap you on the shoulder and call you "pard'ner." And unlike Buchanan, reared inside the Beltway, Dobbs, like you, actually came from somewhere real.

Born in 1945 in the Texas Panhandle town of Childress, Louis Earl Dobbs came of age in Rupert, Idaho, raised by a mother who kept the books for a furniture store and a father who worked in the propane business. In 1964 Dobbs left Idaho, where he'd spent most of his youth working the bean and potato fields with Mexican migrants in the summer and playing football in the fall — because that is what you did when you grew up in Idaho in the early '60s — and came east, to Cambridge and Harvard, to Quincy House and "Cliffies," never really to return. Dobbs had never heard of Harvard before his guidance counselor and English teacher had put his application together. He arrived on campus at a time when the great mischief consisted of Animal House-like panty raids and road trips. When he left four years later, the whole place was up for grabs — full of intellectual wrath and student demonstrations over a far-off but emotionally close war that almost everyone knew would never be won.

He could have stayed the course, could have held down the banking job in Los Angeles he went into straight after graduation, raised a family there, returning east only for "The Game," where he'd sip martinis with old friends outside the Yale Bowl, remembering the punks they all used to be. But instead he grew restless, not to mention jealous of his friend who'd gone to work at the Los Angeles Times, and called nearly every television and radio station in the country looking for work.

He found work, if not money, at a television-radio outfit in Yuma, Arizona, a border town with border problems. It was here Dobbs reported on César Chávez, as Chávez was working to build the United Farm Workers Union. "He was almost alone in his fight to win better wages and working conditions for farmworkers, and he was being fought by the growers associations, labor contractors who brought in 'green carders' from Mexico to undercut the UFW, and the Teamsters union who tried to create their own farmworkers union... and of course the farmers themselves, and the big agribusinesses," recalls Dobbs. "Nearly all the activists today forget that he was one of the most vocal opponents of illegal immigration because they were, in his eyes, working as scabs... setting up the so-called wet line"—UFW border militias —"to stop the entry of illegals."

In 1980, Dobbs, who by then was in a weekend anchor's slot in Seattle, returned east, to New York and the brand-new network launched by Ted Turner and Reese Schonfeld that would report the news over cable wires. Dobbs, the two believed, had the charm and presence to anchor CNN's daily financial show, Moneyline.

And so he did. Every night, for almost two decades, the pudgy redhead addressed what he called the "political economy" just as workers were finding their pension plans and profit sharing replaced with 401(k)s, and people not named Rockefeller or even Boesky were beginning to transfer their savings into the stock market. He led the uninitiated through price-to-earnings ratios and hostile takeovers and pro forma accounting. He had the ability to take in the language of power and finance and shoot it straight back at us as something comprehensible.

By 1999, Dobbs had been charged with heading all financial news for CNN, including its international outposts and CNNfn, a financial news network designed to provide the same sort of minute-by-minute stock market pornography that General Electric had mastered with the never-ending ticker of CNBC.

But by then it was no longer a good time to be at CNN, which Ted Turner had (with fiery regret) turned into a subsidiary of Time Warner. Dobbs feuded privately, then very publicly, with then-CNN president Rick Kaplan. Retreating to his horse farm in New Jersey in 1999, Dobbs was widely ridiculed when he took the reins of Space.com, a website devoted to astronomy and space exploration, subjects that had interested him since boyhood. From a distance he watched the tumult of the 2000 presidential election and the tumble not only of Moneyline under his replacements (hip tag-team Willow Bay and Stuart Varney) but also of the NASDAQ and Dow themselves. CNN eventually showed Kaplan the door, which led, in April 2001, to the reentry of a new Lou Dobbs.

This Dobbs was harder, darker. The bubble had sickened the people who'd watched the CNBC crawl with the same frenzy as a football game. They no longer wanted to hear from Judy on the floor. And then came WorldCom, Enron, and other scandals that left Dobbs, as well as his audience, lost. The system he had trusted and promoted had betrayed him.

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