By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 26, 2007
The set of Glenn Beck's talk show on CNN Headline News looks like the rooftop patio of a posh apartment, complete with simulated bricks and a huge photo-realist mural of a SoHo block. Beck is standing in the middle of this fake aerie, riffing about porn.
He avoids X-rated movies and magazines, he says, but won't offer the righteous condemnations you'd expect from the God-fearing conservative that he constantly reminds viewers he is. Porn isn't for him -- but neither is legislating morality.
"I'm just trying to live the best life I know how to," he explains, gesticulating in his somewhat manic style. "For example, I'm an alcoholic. If I have one drink, my life will spiral out of control. But man, if you can have a few drinks and not end up at a Denny's in Tijuana, God bless you, brother. It's your right!"
When the program "Glenn Beck" joined the revamped Headline News lineup in May, initially it looked as if CNN was simply peddling a younger, folksier version of Bill O'Reilly -- a self-appointed truth-squadding right-winger who will not shut up. But Beck, who was recently tapped to make editorial cameos on ABC's "Good Morning America," has brought something new to the TV blowhard genre.
While most sermonizing conservatives wait for a public debacle to expose their failings -- think of William Bennett and his slot-machine addiction, or Rush Limbaugh and his pill problem -- Beck and his many inner demons are on a first-name basis, and he's constantly introducing them to viewers. His alcoholism is just part of it.
Plus, where O'Reilly traffics in absolute truths and certitudes, Beck is a hand-wringer, forever rummaging around the gray areas in any debate, pontificating even as he wonders aloud if his instincts are wrong, or at least worthy of reexamination. He's more culture worrier than culture warrior.
"The show is a little too high-and-mighty today," Beck tells his producer during a commercial break last week when the porn segment is over. "A little too 'Here's how to live your life.' "
With Beck's show, Headline News is hoping that viewers will watch a guy wrestle with himself, as well as with C-list pundits. "Glenn Beck" is watched by 336,000 viewers on a typical night, a fraction of the more than 2 million who tune in an hour later to "The O'Reilly Factor" on Fox News Channel. But Beck's numbers have doubled since his debut, Headline News says, and he remains a talk-radio force, with 232 stations airing his three-hour show every day, including WTNT (570 AM) in Washington. He has yet to debut on "Good Morning America," but apparently that's coming.
"It really depends on what's happening in the world and when he can contribute something to the topics we are covering," says "GMA" spokeswoman Bridgette Maney.
Until he starts trading bons mots with Diane Sawyer, Beck remains best known for what is surely his most embarrassing moment. It happened in mid-November, when Beck invited the country's first Muslim congressman, newly elected Democrat Keith Ellison of Minnesota, on the show and led off by lobbing this stink bomb:
"I have to tell you, I have been nervous about this interview with you, because what I feel like saying is, 'Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.' And I know you're not. I'm not accusing you of being an enemy, but that's the way I feel, and I think a lot of Americans will feel that way."
Three groups have written to ABC urging the network to keep Beck off "GMA," the Associated Press reported yesterday. "That blatant anti-Arab, anti-Muslim bias has been given credibility on a larger news show is something that concerns us," Arab American Institute spokeswoman Jennifer Kauffman told the AP.
When "The Daily Show" re-aired the clip of Beck's question to Ellison, host Jon Stewart followed up with this thought: "Finally, a guy who says what people who aren't thinking are thinking."
The Beast, an alternative newsweekly in Buffalo, was even tougher, putting Beck on a list of 2006's most loathsome people, along with this description: "Even the leather-winged shouting heads at Fox News look like intellectual giants next to this bleating, benighted Cassandra. It's like someone found a manic, doom-prophesying hobo in a sandwich board, shaved him, shot him full of Zoloft and gave him a show."
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Beck has heard worse. He routinely calls himself a "rodeo clown" on the air, and even he finds his cable news perch a bit of a surprise.
"This is a system based on 'I'm right, you're wrong, now get out of my way,' " says Beck, sitting in his office last Friday before the taping of his 7 p.m. TV show. "But that's not who I am, and it's not what I'm entertained by. I know what I believe, but I'm not an ideologue. I will ask, not just on TV but in the privacy of my own home, 'Gosh, is that right?' "
Beck, who is 42, looks more athletic and less doughy in person -- and when he puts on his glasses, a little nerdier, too. He is calmer and quieter than the guy he becomes on TV, but even in repose he has an astounding capacity to talk. A few years ago, a physician diagnosed him with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, he says, but during the workweek he doesn't take his medication. This keeps his idle pretty high, exactly where he likes it.
"I always thought I was a bad dad because I couldn't play with my kids for more than two minutes," says Beck, a father of four. "The first time I took my medication, I was on the floor for an hour and a half. I don't mean to sound like a sap, but I was so grateful, I was wiping tears from my eyes."
Beck has the disarming habit of candidly discussing his foibles, not to mention the agonies and mistakes of his past and his lengthy bout of self-loathing and depression. He is not just a recovering alcoholic ("two glasses a day -- but tall glasses, and all Jack Daniel's") and not just a former pothead ("every day for 15 years"). He is a recovering jerk.
"Honestly, I was just a despicable human being," he says. A self-described radio gypsy who was raised in a town near Seattle, Beck skipped college and at 18 started bouncing around to different stations in ever-larger markets across the country, usually as a morning radio host.
As he rose to prominence, he was shadowed by the signal tragedy of his life: the suicide of his mother when he was 13 years old. For that and other reasons that he is still sorting through, success did not make him happy; it made him insufferable.
"By the time I was in my mid-20s, I was making $300,000. C'mon, scumbag alcoholic with money and modicum of fame?" He shakes his head in a way that suggests you didn't want to know him then.
He'll tell you the ugly stories. Like the time at a now-defunct radio station in Baltimore, when he fired a guy for bringing him the wrong pen. (He wanted a Sharpie for signing autographs at a live event, not a ballpoint.) In 1991, Beck was unemployed and so notorious a prima donna that the only job he could get was in Hartford, Conn., where he hosted a morning show and managed three stations. It was a fraction of his past money and profile, a career cul-de-sac that provoked even greater acts of obnoxiousness and self-destruction.
"That station was a pretty cancerous place to be," recalls Pat Gray, Beck's best friend and his radio co-host in both Baltimore and Hartford. "I mean, I had the feeling that he was going to fire me."
Bottom came after one booze-induced blackout, when his daughters asked him to finish a bedtime story he didn't remember starting. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous, got divorced and found his second wife, Tania, who agreed to get married only if they jointly found a religion. They shopped for a theology, even checking out the local synagogue, which Beck sort of enjoyed. "You're in and out on Saturday, got the whole weekend in front of you," he says with a shrug.
The couple settled on Mormonism, which Beck now calls "the most important thing in my life." Without it, he says, he'd be drinking again and he'd lose sight of what is actually important.
But if Beck has left jerkdom for good, what explains that Keith Ellison question?
"If I could take back the wording of that question, I would," he says, sounding genuinely contrite. He then says he was trying to make the point that moderates of every religion -- his included -- need to face down the extremists in their flock. How exactly his "prove to me" challenge was supposed to tease out that point is a mystery.
* * *
Of course, the no-he-didn't interview style, as well as Beck's strange confection of lectures, self-deprecation and one-liners, is what earned him a ticket to Headline News. The suits at the channel have long cast an envious eye on Fox's superior ratings, and in 2004 they started tinkering with their all-news format for the first time in 23 years. The perpetually enraged Nancy Grace was one of the first acquisitions. Beck is the most recent.
"What amazed me about him is that he was the number-three-rated radio talk show in the country, and he wasn't [on the air] in three of the biggest markets in the country -- Chicago, New York and Los Angeles," says Ken Jautz, who runs Headline News. "And we thought that his style, tone and sensibility would work on TV."
Maybe an attention-deficit host is exactly what an attention-deficit public wants. Listen to a few of Beck's shows and what strikes you most is the enormous ratio of words to substance -- how Beck can monologue for minutes at a time and leave behind almost nothing except the impression of great vehemence.
It's striking, too, how Beck can contradict himself without even noticing. On the same day as his pornography segment, Beck exults over news that Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has called him "CNN's chief corporate fascism advocate," evidently because he thinks Beck is a global-warming skeptic. Not true, says Beck, and though he's flattered by the attention, he's irked that Kennedy apparently hasn't bothered to watch his show. (Kennedy, in a brief interview, says he recalls Beck voicing doubts about global warming a few weeks back.) "The point here is that people who disagree with me don't actually watch or listen to this show," Beck tells his viewers. "They're hearing what they think I would say, what they think someone like me -- you know, a conservative hatemonger -- would say."
From there, Beck segues to an interview with conservative pundit Dinesh D'Souza, who has come to discuss his new book, "The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11."
"Dinesh, I have to tell you, I'm disappointed in this book," he says, by way of an opener.
Then, casually, Beck makes a rather startling admission: He hasn't read D'Souza's book.