The weather cooperated with Glenn Beck on the August morning of his “Restoring Honor” rally. Or maybe it was a higher force. The skies were clear, it was hot but not Washington unbearable, and the crowd, prepared with lounge chairs and water bottles, was serene. He had also banned signs from the event so that he and his fans would not be easy targets for photojournalists, which was a canny way to introduce a kinder, gentler Beck.
He had been a busy man, publishing in June his dystopian thriller, The Overton Window, which has been selling briskly. In July he founded Beck University, a noncredit online education program that offers potted lectures on religion, American history, and economics. In August he was busy setting up his own Huffington Post–style website, called The Blaze. And now here he was, standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, looking out on a crowd of about 87,000 followers who had traversed the country in self-organized bus caravans just to listen to him. He did not rant, he did not rave. He did not, as I recall, mention Barack Obama or call anyone a “socialist” or even a “progressive.” Instead he talked about God and family, about repenting from our sins (including his own), about expressing hope rather than hate, serving others and our country, and tithing to our churches. He prayed, the clergy standing with him prayed, and his followers prayed, arms upraised, waving gently to the beat of some inner hymn.
Beck is the most gifted demagogue America has produced since Father Coughlin made his populist broadcasts during the Great Depression. In the course of one radio or television show he can transform himself from conspiracy nut and character assassin into bawling, repentant screw-up, then back to gold-hoarding Jeremiah, and finally to man of God, without ever falling out of character. Which is the real Glenn Beck? His detractors assume that his basest, most despicable moments reflect his core, and that the rest is acting and cynical manipulation.
This is Alexander Zaitchik’s conclusion, in his sharp and informative smackdown, Common Nonsense, and Dana Milbank’s in his rambling, impressionistic Tears of a Clown. Zaitchik documents Beck’s every flip-flop, every swim in the polluted pools of the John Birchers and paranoid Mormon theocrats, every cruel remark (he called Hurricane Katrina victims “scumbags”), and every offensive comparison (he once likened Al Gore’s campaign against global warming to Hitler’s persecution of the Jews). For Zaitchik, Beck is just one more American con artist in the P.T. Barnum tradition, a shameless pseudoconservative bottom-feeder who will say anything to keep the spotlight on himself while the money rolls in.1
But after reading these books and countless articles on the man, I’m coming to the conclusion…
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