On a summer evening in his futuristic CNN studio reminiscent of a Frank Gehry-designed cafeteria, I saw Lou Dobbs at full power, readying himself for his six o’clock show while the unused New York set of colleague Larry King was stashed in the back of the room like a giant, unplugged Lite-Brite. Few of us have had the chance to completely remake ourselves, but in the past four years, from this very perch, the still-cherubic-looking Dobbs, who hosts Lou Dobbs Tonight, has done just that: morphing from spokesman for the country’s wealthy and powerful — the CEOs’ golfing buddy — to Middle America’s valiant crusader, waging, according to him, an unending battle against the “corporate imperialists,” whom he blames for an untenable increase in illegal immigration, a destabilization of the middle class, and an erosion of national sovereignty.
To watch Dobbs work, to trust him, as many do, the way we once trusted Walter Cronkite, is to see America as a nation under siege. We are, if we’re to believe Dobbs, suffering from policies that have encouraged undocumented workers to cross the Mexican border only to depress wages, overwhelm public schools, and blaze the way for infiltrating terrorists. At the same time, we are under attack from within, he says, from multinational corporations: the same grand companies that once provided the middle class with decent jobs and pensions but now find it easier and cheaper to ship out jobs to India and China.
It’s clear that Dobbs’ sentiments don’t originate with a corporate directive from CNN or even its parent company, Time Warner. I visited him on “World Refugee Day,” and for hours CNN had been highlighting the plight of the planet’s most poor, culminating with a two-hour interview by Anderson Cooper with U.N. goodwill ambassador Angelina
Jolie. Dobbs’ staff had ignored the heart-tugging stories buffering their program as they put together the night’s hour-long show. It would include: a report on the House leadership’s desire to have a tougher immigration bill than the White House and Senate had floated; a story on “the rising importance of illegal immigration and the border security crisis in the upcoming midterm elections”; and a piece from Los Angeles on “a significant new blow against the criminal empire that supplies many of the forged documents to illegal aliens.”
Such a show fits comfortably within the cable television news landscape that changed so irrevocably when Fox News muscled its way onto basic cable, burrowing into homes with robust personalities like Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Shepard Smith. What drove viewers to the Murdochian outfit was its ability to harness the collective anger of large swaths of the country that felt ignored. And, in igniting populist wrath, Fox changed our expectations of news “talent” forever. We expect, no, in fact demand, that Anderson Cooper, floating in what was once New Orleans, lash out at FEMA officials, just as we expect Dobbs night after night after night to attack whomever he damn well pleases.
Perhaps more than his peers, Dobbs has used cable’s niche messaging and agitated viewers to refigure the role of news anchor. While Brian Williams may, in gross numbers, have more viewers, Dobbs’ daily interpretation of the news flickers more brightly both on the 13-inchers sitting next to microwaves as supper’s being readied, and on the flat-screens tucked into offices on the Hill.
“One of our goals at CNN is to reassert our primacy in political coverage,” says Jon Klein, the network’s president. “If you think of political coverage, you typically think of Washington-based political reporting. But here’s Lou, in New York, primarily doing stories on the heartland, on the impact of policies on ordinary Americans, and that’s filtering back to Washington.”
“That’s profound,” Klein adds. “It shows you something about the power media can have away from the centers of power. That’s one of Lou’s strengths. He speaks to the people and he also speaks to the influencers.”
By design, Dobbs’ show offers little in the way of token rebuttal. He has no use, he says, for “he said, she said” journalism, the kind that has reporters scrambling for an opposing quote five minutes before a story goes to the copydesk. His journalism is a driven, singularly focused, advocacy sort that doesn’t have the time or the patience to toss in a throwaway statement from an opposing think tank.
Needless to say, such fervor is not necessarily shared by his peers. Men like Reese Schonfeld, the former CNN executive who hired Dobbs, call his focus, or overfocus, on illegal immigration a “one-trick pony.” Likewise, Mike Wallace, who likes Dobbs and his program, told me, “He has a fixed and predictable and occasionally excessive preoccupation with broken borders and immigration.”
Yet to call Dobbs a traditional conservative, or even a know-nothing populist, is an ill-fitting label. Yes, the lifelong Republican (though no fan of the current president and since 2006 a registered independent) shares certain sentiments with professional howler Pat Buchanan, who also lashes out at border policy. But it is in his anti-corporate stances that Dobbs distances himself from the bulk of the mainline right, even as he refuses to align himself with the left. Indeed, Dobbs shares no contemporary comparison, but a historical one, to “The Great Commoner” William Jennings Bryan, who, along with his anti-Darwinism rants, railed against the influence of the robber barons, monopolies, and trusts.
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.
“I never dreamed that we would see the major corporations committing that kind of fraud,” Dobbs told me as we sat in his office in the Time Warner Center overlooking Columbus Circle and, beyond that, Central Park. “President Bush would call them evildoers. That’s what they were, and it was rampant.”
“You have to understand,” Dobbs continued. “I’m a guy who believed in the system. I truly believed that if a person was running a Fortune 500 company, that he was playing by the rules. That disappointment, that failure to live up to standards, is something I think we all share. It drove me ballistic.”
Daily he pressed for indictments in the Enron investigation, then, in 2003, he changed the name of his show from Lou Dobbs Moneyline to Lou Dobbs Tonight. Dobbs claims the change occurred to mark the larger focus the show had taken. Conveniently, it also wiped away any connection to the CEOs and CFOs the program had had in the past.
“Once again he didn’t fight the tide,” says Dobbs’ college classmate and New York businessman Michael Holland. “The tide went out on the stock market shows and CNBC shows. It was a clearheaded business judgment.”
“He transformed himself from a guy known primarily for business news to one known as a generalist,” CNN’s Klein told me. “That’s an impressive transformation to make that deeply into one’s career. It would be like Roger Clemens becoming a shortstop.”
This new Dobbs chafed both on air and in print — in columns for U.S. News & World Report and the Daily News — at the politically correct who failed to recognize terrorism as a logical outgrowth of radical Islam. When outsourcing became part of our everyday language, Dobbs was there again on air and later in his 2004 best-seller, Exporting America: Why Corporate Greed Is Shipping American Jobs Overseas. In it, Dobbs not only ticks off countless towns where factories have been closed due to outsourcing, but also rants about cartoons sent to Korea to be animated and Cold Mountain being filmed in Romania. He followed up two years later with War on the Middle Class: How the Government, Big Business, and Special Interest Groups Are Waging War on the American Dream and How to Fight Back. Writing from an “American perspective,” Dobbs defends groups like the Minutemen and applauds politicians such as former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney who’ve called for tougher standards for teachers. But like its predecessor, the book is thin on solutions; Dobbs urges more voters to register as independents, calls for having a “cooling off” period before politicians can become lobbyists, and agitates for eliminating the presidential authority to fast-track trade deals.
“We’re told by the faith-based free traders that all is well,” Dobbs told me. “It’s mindlessness. We’re not exporting. We’re told it’s free trade. It’s an absurdity. There are 25 percent tariffs on our automobiles going to China and 2 percent here. What are we exporting? We’re exporting scrap metal, waste products, and soybeans. They’re exporting to us electronics, computers—and we’re supposed to be the technology country.”
This past summer, Dobbs attended a luncheon panel on immigration on enemy turf, the annual meeting of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ), held in a white-hot Fort Lauderdale. He sat in a darkened room with 1,600 people, most of them Hispanic and, well, journalists, and defended his views on illegal immigration on a panel narrated by PBS’s Ray Suarez; the other panelists were New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, reverend and professional do-gooder David Beckmann, and former Mexican secretary of foreign affairs Jorge Castañeda.
But before, during, and after, it was Dobbs who drew the most attention. He posed for pictures with pretty young women straight out of journalism school who were heading (if they were lucky) to weekend anchor jobs in Topeka and Des Moines, shook hands with a San Diego columnist who called Dobbs’ audience (and by extension, him) “certifiable” and “racist,” and sat onstage shielding both his ideology and his methods, saying: “I don’t really believe in something called ‘fair and balanced.’ That’s another news network. I’m not too interested in what some call, with a wink and a nod, objective journalism…. I don’t put my thumb on the scale. I stop the damn thing. I want people to know exactly where I’m coming from.”
“I happen to have an interest in independent, nonpartisan reality,” Dobbs told Suarez. “You may not agree with it.”
“Whether I agree or not,” Suarez replied, “is completely immaterial.”
After the other panelists had dispersed, Dobbs found himself defending his views for 45 more minutes. Before he could leave, three Hispanic journalists cornered him, demanding a change in his vocabulary. They weren’t asking for much. They had long ago conceded that Dobbs wouldn’t reverse his stance on the issue itself. What they wanted was simply for Dobbs to no longer use the term “illegal alien” on the air. Couldn’t Dobbs use “undocumented worker”? Or, at the very least, “illegal immigrant”?
“‘Illegal immigrant’?” Dobbs said, with his wife, Debi, a former sportscaster who is herself of Hispanic origin and who refers to Dobbs as “Husband” — he calls her “Momma” — not far away. (In 2003, Debi was arrested after trying to board a plane at the Newark airport with a gun the Dobbses keep on their farm for protection.) “Do I need to say ‘legal immigrant’? Do I need to put a modifier on that? Do I tell someone who’s entered the country legally, ‘You’re a legal immigrant’?”
“No,” said a short, dark man with a shaven head and a goatee. “You would refer to them as ‘immigrants.’ When you’re trying to make the distinction between those who entered the country legally or illegally, then you use the modifier.”
“Then I won’t concede the point,” Dobbs said. “It’s not up to the individual to make the distinction to immigrate without the consent and authority of the United States government; therefore, if I say ‘illegal immigrant’ I’m working at cross-purposes.”
As the conversation began to fade out, Regina Medina, a director of NAHJ and a reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News, approached Dobbs, asking him if he’d consider handing over $1,000 for a membership in the group.
“You know I’m not Hispanic,” Dobbs said. But when Medina assured him there were other members in the same position, Dobbs measured the situation. On record he deplores the existence of hyphenated Americans, going so far as to oppose staples of immigrant identity such as St. Patrick’s Day. But while he would have gladly argued the linguistic merit of “illegal immigrant” for another four hours, saying no to this monetary gesture might have led to an even more heated argument about the existence of the NAHJ Itself. If anything, Dobbs has shown the uncanny ability to recognize the precise moment to get the hell out, and this was sure it. Knowing there was a car out front waiting to speed him and Debi away, Dobbs whispered into Medina’s ear: No, he wouldn’t take one membership. He’d take five.
Shaking his head over the incident a few days later, Dobbs repeated to me, “Five of them.”
Dobbs would go on the air that night, as he has been since his rebirth, a man alone. He would do so as a traitor to the corporate leaders and the free-market theorems that have influenced much of the modern conservative movement, but also as a man who finds no kindred spirits among liberals, who see a racist strain in his form of economic nationalism.
“The United States was once considered the greatest can-do country on the face of the earth,” he told me, “but this insidious libertarianism suggests we can’t change the educational system. We can’t control our borders or our ports, but we can send men and women to Iraq to install democracy? When we don’t have the wherewithal to preserve it here? Where is the reason? It’s a failure of leadership. It’s a failure of leadership in so many of our institutions. Someone said to me that the far right hates you and the far left fears you, and that’s perfectly fine with me.”