During my first stint in the US in the mid-1990s, Lou Dobbs was a rather pompous business journalist on CNN, much given to interjections like "If you will", as he conducted none too aggressive interviews with the corporate mighty of the day. So who is this snarling new Lou, still pompous but with a veritable furnace in his belly, as he inveighs against foreign countries, foreign companies, and illegal foreign workers?
This re-invention is not unconnected with America's cable TV wars. Worthy but a bit bland, CNN is getting slaughtered by the "fair and balanced" Fox News of Rupert Murdoch, whose conservative anchors sweep the board in the ratings. CNN's bosses have decided that opinion is what the punters want - and opinion Lou is now licensed to give them.
In the process, he has become the television face of the immigration debate consuming America - or at least one side of it. Take this sample, culled from his musings last Thursday, as the Senate groped for a compromise that would allow some, at least, of the illegal workers here to become legal residents and, one day, US citizens. Lou's view was unequivocal. The proposals, he declared, "continue the assault on the middle class. They won't be fooled by this nonsense ... Millions and millions are suffering because of illegal aliens."
Now Dobbs is undoubtedly sincere in his Poujadiste conversion. But, unlike the 1950s champion of France's shopkeepers, one senses he's not going to carry all before him. The House of Representatives has voted to throw the illegals out and turn the southern US border into a new Iron Curtain, but common sense may yet prevail in the Senate when it returns from the Easter recess. Helping it on its way, it must be said, has been President Bush, who has long realised the inequities and absurdity of the present system.
Yes, America has a problem with its illegal immigrants. Mostly from Mexico and central America, they are believed to number between 12 million and 20 million. They consume precious social services. Their vulnerability encourages abuse by employers. Criminal organisations feed off their determination to achieve a better life. Uncounted and undocumented, some of them may pose a security risk.
But America would have a far larger problem without them. The supplies of cheap foods, goods and services craved by America's "middle class" would be threatened. Quite probably, great areas of the national economy would grind to a halt, were there not a pool of illegal labour to draw upon.
The hypocrisy generated by the issue is breathtaking. I well remember the 1996 Republican convention which nominated Bob Dole, held in San Diego, 10 miles from the Mexican border. Speakers railed against the illegals. But no prizes for guessing who was sweeping up the convention hall and cleaning the loos in the small hours.
Bush is no economic ignoramus. He knew that to bar an Arab-owned company from being allowed to manage some US ports would send an awful signal about American Islamophobia, and the lure of protectionism, marching under a bogus flag of national security. That battle he lost, and Lou Dobbs (and to its disgrace, the US Senate) sent Dubai Ports World packing.
But this time it should be different. Bush is no Canute, and nor are most Americans. He knows that no fence, no border patrols, can keep people from pursuing the dream of a better life. Catch them and send them back home and the illegals would come pouring back to perform the jobs Americans refuse to do. Without the safety valve provided by illegal immigration, the social stability of the countries to the south of the US would be threatened. But these are not arguments you are likely to hear from Lou Dobbs and the anti-immigration crowd any time soon.Reuse content