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Send Out the Clowns

By Kathleen Parker
Sunday, October 18, 2009

As the war of words between conservative gabmeisters and the White House escalates, Americans might pause to wonder: Have we lost our minds?

On any given day, life in the nation's capital feels like being trapped in an "Animal House" sequel -- with less-funny people. If we all take off our sunglasses, can we play grown-up for a while?

The names on the right are by now familiar, thanks in part to columns like this. We in the media can't stop talking about them. But Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh can't be ignored. Not only do they have sizable audiences and loyal followings but the president of the United States acknowledges them. Thank-you notes would seem to be in order.

In the latest blast from Pennsylvania Avenue, Fox News, which airs "Glenn Beck," has been targeted as an extension of the Republican Party. Said White House communications director Anita Dunn:

"We're going to treat them the way we would treat an opponent. . . . We don't need to pretend that this is the way that legitimate news organizations behave." Beck must be shopping for serapes as he practices, "Make my day" -- if I may mix my Clint Eastwood metaphors. Inconveniently for Dunn, meanwhile, Beck has unearthed a speech in which she praises one of her favorite philosophers, Mao Zedong. For such times, God invented the word "oy."

Of course, Dunn isn't entirely wrong about Fox News, which is popular among conservative viewers for the same reason MSNBC is popular among liberal viewers. Some like Beck and Bill O'Reilly; some like Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow. In media, as in romance, there's someone for everyone.

The White House strategy of going after Beck & Co. is risky business, however. Anyone who has been misquoted or mischaracterized by the media -- that would be anyone in the public eye, including members of the media -- understands the impulse to set the record straight. But in this case, the White House has become the gift that keeps on giving.

Every time the president or one of his spokespeople mentions Beck or Limbaugh, the latter two enjoy increased ratings and bucks. Who's the happiest man on earth these days? Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes, whose soles must rarely touch pavement.

What is the White House afraid of? To the point: Just how much does the White House doubt the intelligence of the American people?

Audiences may tune in to Beck and Limbaugh for their entertaining take on things, but they're not necessarily going to buy everything they're selling. They might note, however, that every now and then -- between the crocodile tears and carnival stunts -- Beck gets it right (see ACORN). And, much as more dignified conservatives might wish otherwise, he is effective (ask Van Jones). And now Dunn?

That said, Beck isn't to be treated oh-so-seriously. Simple rule: Recognition empowers. If Fox News were a nation, Beck would be Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. You don't want to give him ammunition. Obama did -- and now Beck gets to make the president look both silly and sinister.

In response to the administration's comments about Fox News, Beck installed a hotline for the White House to call when Beck gets his facts wrong. In one segment, he placed toy tanks, missiles and aircraft on a map to show where the enemy camp (Fox News) is located. More recently, he has invoked the Holocaust -- "First they came for the Jews" -- as a way of warning other news outlets that they could be next.

As a one-man doomsayer, Beck liberally sprinkles his right-wing rhetoric with hot-button references. Last week, Politico's Ben Smith counted the number of times Beck has used certain adrenaline-pumping words since the show began airing in January: Marxist/Marxism, 127 times; communist/communism, 330; socialist/socialism, 404.

As Beck's hyperbole expands, so, apparently, does the White House's attention -- to no good end. The sooner Obama distances himself, the better.

Americans really aren't stupid, someone should tell the president, though they do enjoy a good sideshow. Limbaugh's listeners, not to be confused with his squadron of obedient flying monkeys, are among the better informed in the nation, according to recent Pew Research Center surveys of news audiences. Concerns about misinformation are valid, of course, but the occupant of the Oval Office has the biggest pulpit. Let the little dogs yap, Mr. President. It's good for the nation's spleen. And trust that the people who put you in office can tell the clowns from the ringmasters.

kathleenparker@washpost.com

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