Is Lou Dobbs Running for Office? Watch the man holding the trial balloons.

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Former CNN anchorman Lou Dobbs has been publicly musing about the possibility of running for high office - perhaps the Senate seat currently held by New Jersey's Bob Menendez; perhaps the White House. It's not the first time his name has been floated as a candidate, but this time, I think he might be serious, because he's got one of the most powerful PR strategists in the industry shaping his message. If you want to understand what Dobbs might be up to, keep your eyes on Robert Dilenschneider.

First, some background. Dobbs, 64, abruptly left his anchor post at CNN Nov. 11 after months of controversy over his nightly news show, which frequently focused on the problem of illegal immigration as a central cause of many of the United Statea' economic and social ills. Critics charged that Dobbs frequently based his reports on false or distorted information. Reportedly, Dobbs had been admonished by CNN president Jonathan Klein to focus on straight reporting on his television show and save his advocacy for his syndicated radio show.

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The news that Dobbs might be considering a run for office came in a radio interview with former Republican presidential candidate and Senator Fred Thompson, according to a Nov. 24 New York Times story. In that story, follow-up questions were being fielded by Dilenschneider, the former CEO of the powerful Hill & Knowlton PR chain. Dilenschneider offered that a run for President would likely be preceded by a run for the Senate. But incumbent Senator Bob Menendez's term ends in 2012 - the same year as the presidential election. That's why Josh Marshall from Talking Points Memo decided that Dobbs shouldn't be taken seriously as a political candidate. It was a misstep, to be sure.

The Dilienschneider connection

However, if Bob Dilenschneider is fielding questions for Dobbs, something is up. Dilenschneider is a big dog in the PR world, and he doesn't make himself available to just anybody. His books, Power and Influence (the 2007 update of the 1991 volume is subtitled: "The Rules Have Changed"), are widely read among public relations practitioners. His consulting firm, The Dilenschneider Group, serves a select, limited, and largely anonymous client roster.

Before he started his own firm, Dilenschneider served as CEO for the global PR firm Hill and Knowlton from 1986 to 1991. While his tenure was marked by notable successes, there was one embarassing, public and fateful failure and egregious ethical lapse. In August, 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait.  That October, Hill and Knowlton arranged for the daughter of a Jordanian ambassador  to testify before a meeting of the House of Representatives Human Rights Caucus that she had seen invading Iraqi soldiers storm a Kuwaiti hospital and remove babies from incubators. The young woman, introduced only as "Nayirah" spoke on behalf of a group called "Citizens for a Free Kuwait," which turned out to be a front group created by officials of the exiled Kuwaiti government. At the time, though, her testimony was repeatedly cited as a reason why the US had to go to war.

The caucus chairman, Tom Lantos (D-CA) knew the young woman's real identity, but didn't reveal it. It turned out that Lantos and his committee co-chair, John Porter (R-IL) rented office space at a discount from H&K for the Congressional Human Rights Foundation, an organization they co-chaired that seemed curiously preoccuppied with the welfare of regimes such as Kuwait, not known for their leadership on human rights issues. It also turned out that the Committee for a Free Kuwait made a $50,000 donation to the Congressional Foundation after the US-led invasion of Iraq in early 1991. H&K, it would be revealed, had accepted an $11.9 million contract to gin up US support for an invasion of Iraq.

Hill and Knowlton's role in selling the Gulf War came to light largely because of the investigative reporting of John McArthur, then editor of Harper's magazine, eventually collected in the book, Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the 1991 Gulf War. It also became a case study in for students of business ethics. Scholar Robert Van Es wrote that H&K's political advocacy on behalf of Kuwait demonstrated a need for consulting firms to adopt more stringent ethical standards.

Dilenschneider's founding of his consulting firm, along with the publication of Power and Influence, followed his September, 1991 forced departure from H&K. According to a November, 1991 New York Times story, his ouster was linked to a disagreement over business strategy - the Gulf War story hadn't yet been uncovered.

Dilenschneider and Dobbs

What Dilenschneider is doing for Lou Dobbs hasn't been disclosed, of course. However, Dobb's most recent public moves echo advice in Dilenschneider's books and speeches so well, it's hard not to see his hand.

Consider two recent, well-publicized Dobbs appearances in venues that are, arguably, hostile territory - the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and a Telemundo interview with Maria Celeste. Here, he tells Celeste that he wants to work with leaders in the Hispanic community to enact a "rational, humane, effective" immigration policy. He also distanced himself from a statement on his broadcast accusing illegal immigrants of bringing thousands of cases of leprosy to the US:

Here's the "leprosy" statements they're talking about:

Dobbs' effort to reach out to Hispanics prompted this cynical analysis from LatinoPundit:

"With his eye on public office, Dobbs begins to promote the mainstream comprehensive immigration reform jargon about paying fines, learning English, and jumping through other hoops to legalize those who are already here.... I think that Dobbs is just conveniently pandering to the Telemundo audience,"

The Council of Conservative Citizens, described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as America's largest white nationalist organization, had to assure itself that Dobbs hadn't really changed his mind about immigration.(Dobbs got into trouble a few years ago when he used a spurious CofCC graphic on his broadcast depicting a spurious plot on the part of Mexicans to reconquer the US Southwest. He blamed the graphic on a freelance producer.)

What did Dobbs accomplish by going on Telemundo? A lot, according to Veronica Villafañe at Media Moves:

 "Dobbs was no bully and with his calm tone actually made his interviewer look like a fool. María Celeste had the controversial anchor on a silver platter, but she missed an excellent opportunity to grill him on a variety of issues."

With his conciliatory opening statement, and his reference to having made mistakes, Dobbs appeared reasonable without really giving any specific ground. That's classic Dilenschneider -check his chapter on the "defense" strategy in the original edition of Power and Influence. And I'll wager that the real target of Dobbs' message wasn't folks like Latinopundit, but potential backers who might worry that supporting Dobbs would be construed as racist.

Dobbs was even more interesting in his Nov. 18 interview on The Daily Show. Here, too, Dobbs has a message about how he's standing up of the common man whom, he says, feel abandoned by political leaders in both parties under the Bush and Obama administrations. The normally nimble Stewart really doesn't know how to respond:

 

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Exclusive - Lou Dobbs Extended Interview Pt. 1
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealth Care Crisis

In the web-exclusive portion of the interview, Dobbs gets his "common man" talking points in:

 

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Exclusive - Lou Dobbs Extended Interview Pt. 2
www.thedailyshow.com

Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor

Health Care Crisis

 

I listen to Dobbs telling Stewart about the need for "a way to motivate the center of this country" worried about the "attempt to take the country on a 'hard left turn'" and I'm reminded of this advice from Dilenschneider:

Smart communicators will know how to emerge when their values are “hot” and when to recede when they are not. NOTE: I don’t recommend switching your values with the changing current. That would be CHICANERY.

I do recommend adjusting your positioning in the light of rapidly shifting “values issues.” As I said: Be wary of a high profile when public bias seems strongly against certain values which your firm or your client may hold. Seek out attention when your values are likely to be seen favorably.

Now that Pres. Obama's political ally in New Jersey, Jon Corzine, has lost his bid for re-election and Pres. Obama's approval ratings sinking, Dobbs and Dilenschneider may be seeing an opportunity for an independent populist campaign. He could be a factor, if a Nov. 25 nationwide Rasmussen Polli is any indication. As a 2012 presidential candidate, Dobbs's support hovers around 12 percent, mostly coming from Republican voters. While 2012 is a long ways off, that's a signiicant enough result to cast him as a potential spoiler for the GOP in a contest between Pres. Obama and Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee or Sarah Palin.

Bottom line: Dobbs is up to something. And Dilenschneider is the key to understanding what that something is.

Related: Jane Genova, who says she was a freelancer for the Dilenschneider Group, has a couple of interesting posts about the partnership between the two men. It seems Dilenschneider is als working with Carly Fiorina, another potential candidate for office. Check out Genova's take here:

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