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12.02.09

Is Lou Dobbs Too Mean to Be President?

Former colleagues at CNN tell Lloyd Grove that Lou Dobbs managed through intimidation, picked on subordinates’ weaknesses, and flew into rages. Given what Dobbs calls his “nature,” could he survive a race?

The political world is rife with insecure, self-aggrandizing egomaniacs who present a friendly face to voters while behind closed doors they belittle underlings, throw tantrums, demand flattery, and otherwise abuse their fellow humans—and usually they get away with it.

On that score alone, Lou Dobbs would fit right in.

The 64-year-old former CNN personality—a longtime apologist for corporate bigwigs who in recent years reinvented himself, and for a time found ratings gold, as the scourge of Wall Street, free trade, and illegal immigration—has been flirting with the idea of running for office ever since he abruptly quit the network on Nov. 11 over irreconcilable differences with CNN/U.S. president Jon Klein, and to the considerable relief of colleagues who felt he was tarnishing the CNN brand.

Dobbs “wasn’t sexist at all. He was as mean to the women as he was to the men.”

Dobbs’ political fancies were on display last week when he submitted himself to Telemundo host Maria Celeste for a hostile interview concerning his inflammatory claims about undocumented immigrants (they spread leprosy, they raise the crime rate, they take jobs from real Americans). Dobbs ultimately defused the clash by calling for a “rational, effective, humane” immigration policy and “the ability to legalize illegal immigrants on certain conditions.”

“You sound now like a politician,” a surprised Celeste told him.

“It’s one of the things I am considering,” Dobbs responded, flashing a grin. “I’m not sure you meant that as a compliment,” he added.

Lloyd Grove & Rebecca Dana: What Happened With Lou Dobbs Dobbs has yet to announce his plans, other than to continue hosting his daily syndicated radio show. At Lou Dobbs Tonight, the prime-time program he anchored for six years, he was lord and master of 30-odd staffers and used to getting his way—an impossible scenario in a political campaign. How does a TV star, accustomed to dictating the terms of engagement, cope with an uncontrollable environment in which the electorate owes him nothing, his opponents are on the attack, and reporters are poring over his finances, dissecting his personal life, and possibly even going through his trash? Could Dobbs survive a race for senator, let alone for president, two possibilities being kicked around in the media, without having a meltdown?

“The degree of scrutiny that a candidate for public office, or an office holder in government, is subjected to is at a much deeper and more intrusive and all-consuming level than anything visited upon a television personality,” said former Bush administration official Dan Senor. “The idea that you could be an anchor on a television show, and know what it’s like to be under constant siege by the political opposition, is absurd. They are two different worlds.”

But veteran Republican strategist Ed Rollins, who was a frequent guest on Lou Dobbs Tonight, said his friend is ready for the fight: “No one knows what it’s like in a campaign until he’s actually in it—you never know until you start getting beat up by the media—but Lou has got all the assets. He has great communication skills, and I’ve never seen anything that would lead me to believe that he couldn’t be a great candidate.”

It’s worth noting that New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, a Democrat with anemic job approval ratings, seems worried about a possible Dobbs challenge in 2012. The senator’s press secretary, Afshin Mohamadi, recently claimed, unconvincingly, that his boss “would relish eventually having an opponent from so far out of the mainstream and who has never done a thing for the hard-working people of New Jersey.” In politics, you don’t shoot down.

Dobbs is coy about the prospect, and hardly Shermanesque. “I don’t know, Don—it’s one of the things I’ve been chewin’ on,” he confided Wednesday morning to Fox Business Network shock jock Don Imus when asked about his political intentions. “I’ve always said it doesn’t make any sense for me to run for office, given my nature. I’m not used to putting up with some of the nonsense that some of our elected officials have to put up with. So I don’t know. I can’t imagine it—but I still haven’t ruled it out.”

A severe and frequent George W. Bush critic who abandoned the Republican Party during the last administration, Dobbs is a registered independent whose views are eclectic, to say the least. Along with his well-known positions on immigration and trade, Dobbs is pro-choice, against gun control, and tolerant of gay marriage. He is also tough on corporate greed and favors strong consumer protection laws. In one of life’s little ironies, Dobbs has been married for nearly 30 years to a Latina, former CNN sports anchor Debi Segura, and her parents, who are immigrants from Mexico, live with them on their 300-acre horse farm in Sussex, New Jersey. (In 2003, Dobbs’ wife made headlines, and was arrested, when she tried to board a flight at Newark Airport with a loaded .25 caliber pistol in her purse.)

But Dobbs’ “nature” would assuredly become a campaign issue.

His former colleagues at CNN, a dozen of whom I interviewed, most insisting on anonymity, describe a brilliant, talented, mercurial man who could be warm and charming one moment and seething with rage the next—often, it seemed, for no apparent reason. “Talking about Lou Dobbs,” says one longtime co-worker, “is kind of like talking about Tony Soprano… Lou manages through intimidation.”

Yet Dobbs engendered a strange loyalty as he “beat up” his long-suffering staff, according to one of them. He assembled a platoon of camp followers, and several worked for him for 20 years or more. Dobbs—who liked to address underlings as “you liberal pukes”—often displayed a sardonic sense of humor, even as he occasionally resorted to sexually suggestive jokes. “There were plenty of crude, off-color jokes—they had to do with body parts,” says a longtime Dobbs producer. He was apt to crack to a female employee, “Why don’t you come into my office and we’ll work this out,” or “If you’ll show me yours, I’ll show you mine.” But unlike some television stars, Dobbs didn’t hit on his female colleagues and, as one former CNN correspondent says, “He wasn’t sexist at all. He was as mean to the women as he was to the men.”

A smoker until surgery two years ago that was described as a tonsillectomy, Dobbs would puff away during editorial meetings in his CNN office and refused to stop even when a pregnant employee was required to attend. (He did allow the young mother-to-be to sit just outside his open door.)

“He would pick on people if someone showed a weakness—he would kind of grab on to it,” says a former CNN co-worker. “If someone was going through a hard time, he could make it even worse. Sometimes he could be cruel.”

CNN correspondent Kitty Pilgrim, a divorced single mother who supports her two children alone, worked closely with Dobbs for a quarter-century and was his regular substitute anchor on Lou Dobbs Tonight. According to a CNN source, Dobbs tormented Pilgrim to the point that “she was like a battered wife.” Reached at her office, Pilgrim declined to comment.

In an infamous incident years ago when Dobbs was hosting the business show Moneyline—first reported by Howard Kurtz in his 2000 book The Fortune Tellers: Inside Wall Street’s Game of Money, Media, and Manipulation—Dobbs exploded at CNN correspondent Allan Dodds Frank, now a Daily Beast contributor, and producer Jonathan Labe. Focusing his ire on the diminutive Labe, the 6-foot-3, 200-pound-plus Dobbs allegedly cracked: “I don’t like to shout down to people. Stand on a chair so I can talk to you man to man.” Dobbs was unavailable for comment, his spokesman said, but Labe confirmed the anecdote.

Another longtime colleague, former CNN correspondent Donald Van De Mark, said Dobbs’ bullying methods were ultimately self-defeating. “People were right to be afraid of him,” Van De Mark recently wrote in a personal blog. “Don’t get me wrong—Lou could be fun and very charming. But his overall management style was built on intimidation. And I don’t think that kind of leadership works anymore…People simply don’t make the best choices when they’re nervous or scared. Great leaders know this.”

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.