127 Minutes With Lou Dobbs

Photo: Patrick McMullan

It’s almost 2 p.m. on the seventh day of the rest of Lou Dobbs’s life, and the 64-year-old newsman wanders into his midtown radio studio looking rheumy-eyed and disheveled. His pin-striped shirt is creeping out of his pants, and his loosened silk tie slowly swings back and forth like an old dog’s tail. “I just got back from a two-hour session with the New York Times editorial board,” says Dobbs wearily, a thin strand of straw-colored hair falling over his forehead. He lets out a little chuckle. “There were a couple people there who didn’t really know the issues and didn’t add anything, but that’s okay.”

Dobbs resigned from CNN a week before. He was the last remaining original anchor on the network, but its executives wanted him to tamp down his on-air crusading. Dobbs thinks the country is on an express train to hell because of illegal immigration, Washington’s abandonment of the political middle (as he sees it), and most urgently, Obama’s incompetence. Dobbs also helped legitimize the birther movement, which somehow combined all three of these themes. “CNN and I were just heading in different directions,” says Dobbs diplomatically, perhaps influenced by his reported $8 million severance.

After over 30 years in the business, Dobbs is a relatively recent convert to the Glenn Beck School of Broadcasting. His political views are not as easy to peg as, say, an Olbermann or an O’Reilly—he has written that banning gay marriage is a waste of time, for example—so his anger is of an odd middle-of-the-road-rage variety. He considers himself “Mr. Independent.” Just before the broadcast begins, I ask him if it might be just a wee bit manufactured. But Dobbs claims nothing but sincerity. “These are the most perilous times of my lifetime, and that includes the Cold War,” he says. “With my listeners, I sense outright fear; people are scared, and I can’t tell them that their fear is wrong.”

As his radio show begins, his voice immediately swells about 50 decibels. “Oh, yeah, not just fighting, folks, not just fighting but winning … It may not always feel like it … we may be engaged in a strategy of incrementalism, but by God we’re winning!” Later he adds, “If you’ve missed my interviews with Bill O’Reilly and Matt Lauer, those videos are also up on Lou Dobbs.com for you to see and to relive … Check out the LouDobbs .com store. By the way, it is one of the few places … where you can see only merchandise produced in the United States of America.”

Dobbs gives a sermon ticking off his major talking points: a Washington that doesn’t work for the little people, the disconnect between the elite and the real economy, and the perils of Obama in general. He derides the administration’s concept of “creating and saving jobs.” “My God! Who came up with that,” he says mournfully. He mockingly plays a pro-health-care-reform ad where kids are talking about not having insurance, commenting, “God help us.”

Calls trickle in, and in standard talk-show-radio format, they are all pro-Dobbs; many urge him to run for office. (“I’m considering a lot of things,” he tells me later.) Shortly after he resigned, the New York Post plugged a rumor that he might run for Senate in New Jersey, where he lives on a 300-acre horse farm in Sussex County. “I got a good title for you: President Lou Dobbs,” says a woman caller. In the control room, an engineer adjusts a knob and “Hail to the Chief” begins to play in the background. “You tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” she adds.

Dobbs tells a caller that we have to believe again in American exceptionalism. But isn’t he against our Middle Eastern military adventures, which are predicated on the idea that we can fix the world’s problems because, well, we’re special? Isn’t that a contradiction? “We’re doing it all wrong,” he says. “It’s like I have an alcohol problem and I announce, ‘First, I’m going to solve your drug problem.’ We have to rebuild a ‘we can’ spirit, but it has to be done at home.” Dobbs thinks we have to fix ourselves first. “When did America become afraid of rolling up its sleeves and getting to work? I’m an impatient man when it comes to these things.”

During a break in the show, I point out that surely his horses require patience. He smiles. “But there’s one key difference. You have one expectation of a horse’s intelligence and another expectation of a man’s intelligence.” Dobbs lets out a laugh. “Maybe that’s my mistake.”

Afterward, he continues his farewell-to-CNN media tour with an appearance on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. I ask him if he was nervous. “He’s vicious, an ugly, mean-spirited man,” says Dobbs, half-joking. “And I happen to be one of his biggest fans. I know I’m going to be the victim, but it gives me the best seat in the house.”

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127 Minutes With Lou Dobbs