By Dana Milbank
Sunday, August 29, 2010; A19
There is a telling anecdote in Glenn Beck's 2003 memoir about how the cable news host was influenced by the great fantasist Orson Welles. To travel between performances in Manhattan, Beck recounts, Welles hired an ambulance, sirens blaring, to ferry him around town -- not because Welles was ill but because he wanted to avoid traffic.
Most of us would regard this as dishonest, a ploy by the self-confessed charlatan that Welles was. Beck saw it as a model to be emulated. "Welles," he writes, "inspired me to believe that I can create anything that I can see or imagine."
I was reminded of Beck's affection for deception as he hyped his march on Washington -- an event scheduled for the same date (Aug. 28) and on the same spot (the Lincoln Memorial) as Martin Luther King Jr.'s iconic march 47 years ago. Beck claimed it was pure coincidence, but then he made every effort to appropriate the mantle of the great civil rights leader.
Beck as the fulfillment of Dr. King's dream? And you thought "War of the Worlds" was frightening.
It's been just over a year since Beck famously called the first African American president a "racist" with a "deep-seated hatred for white people." And now, accused of racial pot-stirring, he apparently has determined that the best defense is to be patently offensive.
"Blacks don't own Martin Luther King," he tells us, any more than whites own Lincoln or Washington. "The left" doesn't own King, either, he says.
No, Beck owns King. "This is the moment, quite honestly, that I think we reclaim the civil rights movement," he said this spring. "We are on the right side of history. We are on the side of individual freedoms and liberties and, damn it, we will reclaim the civil rights moment. We will take that movement because we are the people that did it in the first place."
We are? Let's review Beck's history as a civil rights pioneer, a history I've studied while writing a book about Beck.
When Beck was a radio host in Connecticut in the 1990s, his station apologized for an on-air skit in which Beck and his partner mocked an Asian American caller and used their version of an Asian accent. As a CNN host a couple of years ago, Beck interviewed Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim elected to Congress, and challenged him to "prove to me that you are not working with our enemies."
President Obama, who Beck says was elected because he isn't white, is "moving all of us quickly in slavery," Beck has asserted. On his radio show, he declared that "you don't take the name Barack to identify with America. . . . You take the name Barack to identify with . . . the heritage, maybe, of your father in Kenya, who is a radical." He accused Obama of seeking "reparations" from white America, seeking to "settle old racial scores."
Beck has spoken on air about "radical black nationalism" in the White House and "Marxist black liberation theology" influencing Obama. He has further determined that the New Black Panthers have "ties to the White House in a myriad of ways" and are part of Obama's "army of thugs."
This is not quite the ideal background for a man who would claim to be King's heir -- and that's where Orson Welles comes in.
First, Beck employed the hand of God in justifying his decision to co-opt King. He said he chose the date without knowing it was the anniversary of King's march, claiming it happened because of "divine providence."
Second, he invoked some selective history, using his Fox News show to deliver a three-part series updating the history of the civil rights movement. "How has the Democratic Party assumed the mantle of defender of minorities, if you know their early history?" he asked. "Dating to Andrew Jackson -- this is the 17th century . . . ."
Seventeenth century, 19th century, whatever. He informed viewers that "it was the GOP that took the lead on the civil rights" cause.
Finally, Beck updated the meaning of the civil rights movement so that it is no longer about black people; it is about protecting anti-tax conservatives from liberals. Civil rights leaders, he said, "purposely distorted Martin Luther King's ideas." Over the past century, Beck reasons, "no man has been free, because we've been progressive." To his followers, he says: "We are the people of the civil rights movement."
All that is left is for Beck to drive around town by ambulance.
Dana Milbank's book, "Tears of a Clown: Glenn Beck and the Tea Bagging of America," will be published Oct. 5.
See more Post coverage of Glenn Beck's rally.