What does Glenn Beck want?

The cable TV pundit's preacher routine has all sides somewhat confounded

August 31, 2010|By Jules Witcover

To clumsily paraphrase America's great lyricist:

"What is this thing called Beck? This funny thing called Beck? Just who can solve his mystery? Why should he make a fool of me?"

Those clever words, together with Cole Porter's haunting 1930 tune, keep running through my mind as I contemplate the bizarre rally of commentator/celebrity/preacher Glenn Beck at the Lincoln Memorial the other day.

Beyond the argument over how many people flocked around the reflecting pool and beyond for the event — from 87,000, as guesstimated from an aerial photo, to half a million or more by Beck enthusiasts — what was the Saturday rally all about?

The fans of his television show no doubt expected a full-throated denunciation of Washington in general and of President Barack Obama in particular, of the sort that had been a staple of his previous rants. Instead, he served up more of a religious revival/tribute to the military that could only confound the faithful, the foes and the flummoxed alike.

The label Mr. Beck designated for the event was "Restoring Honor," but the citizen priest prophesized that "something beyond man is happening" and that "America today begins to turn back to God." Both messages probably were welcome to ears of the host of tea party movement attendees, but they heard none of the political red meat they may have expected from this notorious Obama-tamer.

Purely in terms of public relations, this shift in message and emphasis was a masterstroke in disarming Mr. Beck's critics, especially those who, with some validity, have dismissed him as an ill-informed or misinformed evangelistic windbag. Discouraging the presence of partisan posters and flags enhanced the nonpolitical atmosphere.

Still, the event seemed a bid to add to his anti-Washington followers all manner of men and women of the cloth and their flocks of all Christian denominations. As a self-identified Mormon, however, he brought a degree of puzzlement to Christian talk-show babblers, some of whom don't consider Mormonism part of Christianity.

The next day, rally attendees could catch Mr. Beck resuming his castigation of Mr. Obama on television, saying the president believed in "liberation theology" that was "a perversion of the gospel of Jesus Christ as most Christians know it."

The whole phenomenon at the Lincoln Memorial of a political pitchman morphed into a religious prophet in mufti brought flashbacks to me of Huey Long and his fictional twin, Willie Stark of "All the King's Men." But when asked later, Mr. Beck professed no political ambition at all, not even running for the White House with Sarah Palin, who spoke at the rally and also turned aside the notion, for this day anyway.

Mr. Beck brushed off the criticism that he was also trying to hijack the civil rights movement by using the Lincoln Memorial on the 47th anniversary of the day of Martin Luther King Jr.'s historic "I Have a Dream" speech. He insisted it was just a coincidence but then attributed it, perhaps whimsically, to "divine intervention."

As a creature of the New Media, Mr. Beck has now followed up his widely televised rally with a new website called "The Blaze," an online version of a print newspaper. After his customary rant against "mainstream media outlets distorting facts to fit rigid agendas," he says, "we decided to hire some actual journalists" to launch it. But unless you're a Beck disciple, don't expect to recognize their names.

In the comments section following Mr. Beck's message introducing the new site, there were 389 responses the last time I looked, virtually all of them worshipful and not a few sophomoric. But taken together, they demonstrate the continuing dumbing-down of the Internet echo chamber that infects, you should pardon the expression, the blogosphere.

It's always risky trying to read significance from the size of a crowd, whether it's a pure political or military rally, an overtly religious one, or some kind of hybrid of the sort Mr. Beck assembled. But this turnout and its tone, contrary to most expectations of his critics, demonstrated the power of the New Media means of mass communication in crafty if demagogic hands.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is juleswitcover@earthlink.net.

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