Bombastic Beck busts out

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 31, 2010; 11:39 AM

When I interviewed Glenn Beck two years ago, I told him that I found his remarks about the first Muslim member of Congress "horribly offensive."

He had informed Minnesota's Keith Ellison during an interview that "what I feel like saying is, sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies."

Beck, who was then with Headline News, said on my CNN program: "I apologize for a poorly worded question. However, I think we're all living in denial if we are really saying to each other that a world that we live in now, where we can't -- where we have to shut up because of political correctness and we can't say Muslim extremists are bad, 10 percent of Islam is extreme and want to kill us."

Artfully done: back off from the insulting wording but not from the larger charge. Beck also told me: "I want people to know I don't take myself that seriously. I want you to know I'm a rodeo clown. I want you to know I'm conservative and I'm not a journalist."

Well, he seems to be taking himself a lot more seriously these days, calling for a religious revival and drawing anywhere from 90,000 to 500,000 people to the Mall, depending on whose estimates you believe. And here's the thing: For all the criticism that Beck was dishonoring the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. with his 8/28 rally, there was virtually nothing said at that event that was objectionable. (Unless you're an atheist. Beck made no attempt to include non-believers with all the God talk, though, as a Mormon, he was not specific about church matters.)

In that sense, he confounded his critics. And the next day, with his Fox News colleague Chris Wallace, he backed off his most notorious statement, that President Obama has a "deep-seated hatred for white people and the white culture" -- using the same self-deprecating tactic he used with me.

"It was poorly said. It was -- I have a big, fat mouth sometimes and I say things, and that's just not the way people should behave. And it was not accurate."

But he substituted the charge that Obama believes in black liberation theology and that people don't recognize the president's version of Christianity.

For all Beck's talk about how he's just a recovering alcoholic who hit bottom and has pulled himself back up, there was this exchange:

WALLACE: Do you feel that you have a role in trying to save this country?

BECK: You don't?

WALLACE: No, I just ask questions for a living.

Beck has become a widely ridiculed figure -- Wallace played the crazed Jon Stewart impersonation -- but he is a force to be reckoned with. Not in politics; Beck wisely said he had "zero interest" in running for president, because there is zero chance he could get elected. But he has a certain genius at calling attention to himself, as we saw Saturday. And a lot of take-back-America folks (from what, I always ask) project their wishes and frustrations onto him.

Atlantic's Clive Crook is no Beck fan, but cannot criticize the rally:

"Beck sets himself up not as a spokesman so much as an inspirational teacher and guide, blackboard and all. There he stands, with the answer to everything, gravely propounding his theories of life, the universe and everything that surrounds it. Wrapped up in his own psychodrama, his self-regard seems limitless.

"He strikes me as a huckster drunk on his own pitch, a true believer in his own cult, ready to hurtle off the rails at any moment -- and all of this seems obvious. Yet he, not Palin, was very much the star of the rally in DC on Saturday. They love the guy. . . .

"I find Beck a tragi-comic figure. And as an atheist (I didn't deny being godless) I do not thrill when a speaker says, 'America today begins to turn back to God'. Quite a claim, that: Beck's signature modesty again. At the same time, though, this gathering -- as it turned out, far more of a religious revival than a political rally -- was completely unsinister. No anger, so far as one could see; no racism. Beck says his choice of date and venue was initially a coincidence, then an act of God; either way, he meant no disrespect to Martin Luther King. I had thought Beck did not believe in coincidences: arrows connect everything to everything else in his mental world. On the other hand, at the event, he praised King effusively as an American hero and sounded as though he meant it."

At the Daily Beast, Reihan Salam says Beck -- and Sarah Palin -- are promoting a return to a "more homogenous" nation of yore:

"The country has long since been transformed by powerful demographic and economic forces that very much threaten what we might call Glenn Beck's America.

"Instead of accepting or embracing this transformation, a large and growing number of white Americans are, knowingly or otherwise, taking a page from minority protest movements of the past by asserting themselves and demanding recognition from political and cultural elites. Many on the left find this sense of anger and alienation risible, seeing in this movement of 'are-nots,' as opposed to 'have-nots,' a class of ignoramuses duped by Fox News into acting against their supposed economic interests.

"Yet it seems more plausible that Fox News is following its audience rather than leading it -- that this anger and alienation has existed for years, and has only now found a decidedly unconventional tribune in the form of Glenn Beck. Though this is a class with economic grievances, it seems more concerned with psychic injuries -- with a profound sense of disempowerment in the face of centralized political power.

"So in this very strange and very fluid political moment, Glenn Beck has emerged as the white Malcolm X. Whereas Malcom X embraced militant black separatism, Beck marries a stridently emotional style with political views that wouldn't have been out of place at a 1950s Elks Lodge event. But like Malcolm X, Beck terrifies mainstream liberals, who see something sinister in his inexplicable ways. And just as Malcolm X mellowed in his old age, embracing a more traditional interpretation of Islam shortly before his death, Beck seems to be self-consciously moving past the politicized anger that defined his program for much of the past two years towards a heavy emphasis on spiritual uplift for his people."

I don't know about the Malcolm X comparison, but Salam is onto something: Beck is promoting religion as a path back to America's golden age. (Sure, detractors would say, when we had only white presidents.)

Why did folks show up? Salon's Mark Benjamin endeavored to find out:

"Members of the crowd seemed genuinely enthusiastic, but when I talked to them, they uniformly resorted to clich├ęs to explain what the rally was about.

"Gerald Chester, a truck driver from Elkhart, Ind., said he came because of Beck. 'What he is about is a good thing, restoring honor,' Chester said. 'Bringing God back into Americans' lives is important.' When asked what attendees should do to accomplish this, Chester replied, 'That's a good question.' Kristine Sullivan said she was 'here to take back America. I want it back. I want our country back.' She said the purpose of the rally was to encourage people to vote for 'whoever is up there to support the American people.' Alexander McGhee said he was 'afraid of where our country is going.' He said people should 'do absolutely everything and anything they can possibly think of that might further the cause of restoring honor to this great nation.' 'I believe in God and I think that Glenn Beck does, too,' was Joe Sheerau's explanation. He said Beck is 'trying to bring back what made this country great' and that he fears 'a force in our society and in our culture that is trying to marginalize what made this country great.' " National Review's Robert Costa finds Beck visiting the tea partiers:

"In a surprise appearance at the FreedomWorks conference in Washington on Friday, Beck had explained why he decided to spearhead what was, in many respects, an ecumenical revival. 'My role, as I see it, is to wake America up to the backsliding of principles and values and most of all of God,' he told the assembled conservative activists.

As for the rally, "it was Beck's call for a religious rebirth that dominated. He urged the throngs to 'recognize your place to the Creator' and to 'realize that He is our king.' 'He is the one who guides and directs our life and protects us,' Beck said, his voice rising. 'I ask, not only if you would pray on your knees, but pray on your knees with your door open for your children to see.' " He's sounding more like a televangelist each day."

Ross Douthat likens Beck to another public figure:

"In a sense, Beck's 'Restoring Honor' was like an Obama rally through the looking glass. It was a long festival of affirmation for middle-class white Christians -- square, earnest, patriotic and religious. If a speaker had suddenly burst out with an Obama-esque 'we are the ones we've been waiting for,' the message would have fit right in.

"But whereas Obama wouldn't have been Obama if he weren't running for president, Beck's packed, three-hour jamboree was floated entirely on patriotism and piety, with no 'get thee to a voting booth' message. It blessed a particular way of life without burdening that blessing with the compromises of a campaign, or the disillusioning work of governance."

Right. Beck doesn't have to run anything -- except what he described Sunday as his "big, fat mouth."

Despite what conservatives say, Obama didn't offer himself as a savior, although some in the media did. He tried to become the leader of a movement.

At the New Republic, Alexander Zaitchik says there was an unmistakable winner:

"Almost no one who attended Saturday's 'Restoring Honor' rally on the National Mall seems able to cogently explain what, exactly, took place. Was it a thinly disguised political rally? A triumph of Made in America inspirational treacle? A modern-day religious revival? . . .

"Yet there was one message that the afternoon's emotional emcee managed to get across with unmistakable clarity: Glenn Beck is still a major force to be reckoned with, and has every intention of staying one. . . .

"Beck's success on the Mall this weekend should serve as a warning to those who would simply dismiss the former DJ and wait for history to correct the error of his national influence."

The guy can draw a crowd. What he does with that ability remains an interesting question.

Obama's forehead

The economy is far and away the top issue right now. So what got picked up after the latest presidential interview, with Brian Williams?

Washington Monthly's Steve Benen isn't pleased:

"After talking at some length about the problems afflicting the Gulf Coast in general and Louisiana in particular, Williams noted public opinion polls showing significant numbers of Americans questioning the president's faith and birthplace. Obama more or less just shrugged off the nonsense. 'The facts are the facts,' he said, adding, 'I'm not going to be worrying too much about whatever rumors are floating on out there. If I spend all my time chasing after that, then I wouldn't get much done. . . . I can't spend all my time with my birth certificate plastered on my forehead.' The president, in other words, treated this is a silly, trivial distraction, which it is."

It's an absurd distraction. And after that Pew survey, Williams had to ask the question. But in most of the newspaper stories and sound bites and Web digests I saw, that was the lead.

Of course, Obama made his dismissal too colorful, rather than brushing it off with a dull comment.

Rick's regrets

Amazingly, CNN's Rick Sanchez calls Barack Obama "the cotton-picking president of the United States." After a break, he says this:

"You know I didn't even realize it? I was just saying 'cotton picking' because it's a term that I've used because I grew up in the South. . . . However, I apologize for using it, in case it was taken by anyone as an act of disrespect."

Taken by anyone? I'm glad he apologized.

Sports scam

AOL's Fanhouse reports on an intentional hoax:

"Washington Post columnist Mike Wise had a point he wanted to make about the declining standards of the media. He made that point in the worst way imaginable: By making up a phony 'scoop' and posting it on Twitter.

"It all started early Monday afternoon, when Wise tweeted that he had been told the NFL would suspend Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for five games. . . .

"It's true that several media outlets, including the Miami Herald, Baltimore Sun, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Pro Football Talk (where I also write) passed along Wise's tweet. Those outlets attributed the information about Roethlisberger to Wise, while also noting that the NFL had made no formal announcement of Roethlisberger's suspension, and no one else had confirmed the report. . . .

"Wise seems to realize now that he made a mistake. In a tweet a few hours after he got the whole thing started, Wise offered his 'apologies' while also declaring, 'I'm an idiot.' " Mike, you're no idiot. But that wasn't, well, wise.

They like Mel

In a new Vanity Fair/"60 Minutes" poll, "The vast majority of Americans (76 percent) . . . picked 'No, no effect' in answering the question: Are you now less likely to go see a Mel Gibson movie as a result of the recent scandal? Men at 80 percent and women at 72 percent were almost in total agreement on that one, with 20 percent overall answering they would be 'less likely' to view his films."

To anyone who heard the tapes of Gibson verbally abusing his girlfriend, who says he hit her in the mouth, I ask: What, exactly, would it take to turn off the movie-going public?

Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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