Lou Dobbs is a strange man. One day he’s railing against "Obamacare," stoking the birther and deather paranoia that an illegitimate president’s health care plan will mandate euthanasia. Next day he’s practically singing the praises of single-payer healthcare systems ’round the world.
It’s kind of French of him, but last week, CNN’s government-out-of-my-face bloviator began a monthlong, nation-a-night series to "learn from other countries’ health care plans." He’s already toured the single-payer systems of Denmark, Canada, and England, and the heavily regulated, public/private plans of Germany, France, Holland, and Switzerland. And, as if he were channeling Michael Moore or something, he’s been rattling off stats showing that most of these universally covered foreigners are spending less on healthcare but living longer than we do.
Oh, sure, he’ll occasionally exaggerate any weakness he can find–Lou’s particularly eager to tsk-tsk over England’s long lines. But overall, the series (reported mostly by CNN’s Kitty Pilgrim), has been straightforward, like this look at Denmark, which could almost inspire a townhall mob to chant "Mandate, baby, mandate!"
And tonight it’s off to Japan!
But, really, what gives, Mr. Independent? Have you gone soft on softcore socialism? Do you realize that you’re actually making the "government takeover of healthcare" look pretty darn good? Or is this some kind of forced penance for spraying CNN with birther spittle, causing the network a "publicity nightmare," and, worse, sinking your own ratings?
On his Wednesday radio show, Dobbs as much as announced that CNN president Jon Klein (who’s been publicly defending Dobbs against calls for his firing) made him do it: "We’re pushing opinion aside. We’re focusing on a nonpartisan objective reality that it is our job to cover," Dobbs declared, admitting, "I resisted this idea initially."
But as Lou has proved again and again, he can’t help but resist. On radio the very next day, he slammed Obama for compiling "an enemies’ list" (not true), and harrumphed mightily: "I’m moving from being an independent, sir, to being absolutely opposed to your, any policy you could conceive of!" As if he hadn’t moved into outright opposition long ago.
So, as soon as Lou had completed all that extra homework–writing 100 times on the blackboard, "I will push opinion aside. I will push opinion aside"–he finally gets to bust out and mix it up with his guests. Only then do the familiar snide comments, appalled facial expressions, and twisted facts spill into a headlong attack on each and every aspect of Obama’s healthcare plan–even the aspects resembling those he had just more or less commended in Europe.
That is, Dobbs can read all sorts of fair and balanced words from a script, but he is willfully deaf to their meaning. Anything that doesn’t fit his worldview, he doesn’t hear, it doesn’t compute, and he goes blank.
As he did last week when he interviewed Obama’s former doctor, David Scheiner. The fact that Scheiner had criticized the president’s healthcare plan was enough to land him on Lou Dobbs Tonight; but the fact that Scheiner had criticized Obama from the left for ignoring single-payer plans simply couldn’t find an empty berth to tie up to in Dobbs’s brain. Dr. Scheiner passionately, and at length, explains to Dobbs that it is private insurance companies that are standing between doctors and their patients, not the goverment. "The government never gets in the way," Scheiner says. "In Medicare, 40 years of Medicare, they’ve never interfered with me giving care."
"Medicare is–I’m sorry, which is interfering?" replies a suddenly glowering Dobbs, who apparently wasn’t listening at all. Yet even after Scheiner carefully explains yet again, Dobbs kept on: "But the argument is, as you know, Doctor, that with government-run healthcare that there would be great intrusion by the government…"
Now that’s what I call dobbering! More willful than mere doddering, Lou’s habit of hearing only what he wants to hear, while clinging to factoids that have been proven wrong and getting offended when others question these falsehoods, deserves an eponymous word all its own.
Take Lou’s famous Imaginary Alien Leprosy Epidemic from 2005: He insisted that 7,000 cases of leprosy had suddenly appeared in the U.S. over the previous three years, mostly, he implied, from "illegal aliens." There were indeed 7,000 cases, "but that’s over the last 30 years, not the last three," David Leonhardt wrote in The New York Times, and there was no link to immigrants. Leonhardt added that Dobbs "never acknowledged on the air that his program presented false information twice. Instead, he lambasted [guests] for saying he had."(For a recent, ridiculous health care lambasting, see this.)
People who’ve worked with Lou at CNN frequently try to explain his self-contradictions–the free-market capitalist who rails against corporations outsourcing American jobs, for example, or the anti-immigrant scourge who’s married to a Mexican-American, or the avuncular anchor who says the only way to stop "leftist bloodsucker" Howard Dean is to "put a stake through his heart"–with a Theory of Two Lous. Lloyd Grove quoted an email from former CNN CEO Tom Johnson last week in The Daily Beast that explicitly postulated a nice, warm, sensitive Lou who wants all his colleagues to love him and simultaneously a mean, self-centered Lou who "can intimidate the hell out of" his people. You flips your coin and takes your luck.
In fact, Dobbs’s fluctuating nature may simply be an expression of his total embodiment of CNN. No other cable anchor is as identified with his network as Dobbs is with his–none have been at the helm for as long, or have as intimate a relationship with the corporate side as Dobbs does (he and Ted Turner are old, close friends). Over that tenure Dobbs has gone from being the enterprising pioneer pushing a 24/7 news cycle to, with the rise of FOX and MSNBC, the closest thing we have to a cable establishmentarian. FOX is red, MSNBC is blue, and CNN is not purple but beige on beige–like Dobbs sees himself. At times he seems to fade into the silvery ether of his network’s logo, leaving nothing but his perfect pearly whites behind, clacking away.
Dobbs has all the seamless, slick authority of a local TV anchor circa 1979–it’s not for nothing that he’s often compared to Ted Baxter, the hamster-brained blowhard on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. He was chosen to give heft and an air of reliability to CNN–the same reason the network got James Earl Jones to intone "This is CNN" for its bumpers–when it was little more than a local Atlanta start-up, fighting for acceptance from major corporate advertisers. As it has succeeded, so Dobbs has morphed into a kind of Mr. Drysdale, the stuffy banker from The Beverly Hillbillies, projecting a pompous dignity while secretly, just below the surface, bubbling with insecurities.
And like Mr. Drysdale, Dobbs sees himself as helping good, decent folks fit into a modern world that has too little respect for and absolutely no understanding of their traditional values. He has become a tribune of the "center" in American politics, and the center to Dobbs looks an awful lot like his glory days in the 1980s and early ’90s, when CNN bestrode the cable world like a colossus and conservatism had not lost two foreign wars and destroyed the national economy. That these things have happened is almost beyond the ken of any political talk star created by Ronald Reagan’s repeal of the old Fairness Doctrine rules, Dobbs included. They, quite naturally, just want all the changes to stop, right now.
So he looks into the camera with beetled brow, tries to make sense of these terrible truths, and asks, as he did last week about health care reform, "Is doing nothing better than doing something?"