By David Oshinsky
Sunday, October 17, 2010; B07
TEARS OF A CLOWN
Glenn Beck and the
Tea Bagging of America
By Dana Milbank
Doubleday. 261 pp. $24.95
All right, America, a show of hands: How many of you are tired of hearing your country torn down by a "big-nosed, cross-eyed freak" like Barbra Streisand? Okay. And how many share my fantasies about poisoning Nancy Pelosi, shooting Michael Moore and bashing in Charlie Rangel's head with a shovel? Thank you. I'm humbled! And how many think your government may be planning concentration camps to handle political dissidents and death panels to dispose of Grandma when she gets the sniffles? Right on! And how many have truly prepared for Armageddon by snapping up the gold coins and non-hybrid seeds that I'm pitching on my programs? You know why you need to buy these things? Because Barack Obama and his communist-Nazi-progressive gorillas don't want you to have them, that's why!
Such is the loony world of Glenn Beck, as described by Dana Milbank, a syndicated columnist for The Washington Post, in his droll, take-no-prisoners account of the nation's most audacious conspiracy-spinner. The book's title, "Tears of a Clown," is also its hypothesis. Beck cries a lot in public. He can't help himself. He's just an emotional guy who loves his country too darned much to keep things bottled up inside. He cries about his family, and your family, and the daily perils we all face. He cries one day because America's on the brink of becoming Nazi Germany, the next day because it's morphing into Stalinist Russia, the following day because it's behaving suspiciously like (we've hit rock bottom here) France. "On this sea of tears," says Milbank, "Beck's boat has floated to the top of cable news and talk radio, and put him at the head of a mass antigovernment conservative movement."
But is he a clown? About this, Milbank is a bit less certain. Wrestling briefly with the idea that Beck may be a true believer -- a kook honestly devoted to his cause -- Milbank dismisses him as a cynical entertainer whose only goal is self-promotion. There is ample evidence to support this view, much of it supplied by the subject himself. Asked by his Fox News colleague Bill O'Reilly why he does so much "whacked out stuff," Beck, who attracts about 2 million television viewers to his late-afternoon program, replied: "[You] don't get those ratings at 5 p.m. by being Charlie Rose." Whether this makes him a clown is a matter of interpretation. If so, he's in a class by himself -- the Emmett Kelly, so to speak, of modern broadcasting.
Milbank is pitch-perfect in describing a typical Beck performance. He has watched and listened to more Beck programs than I believed possible for the human mind to absorb. Listening to a Beck rant about American history, Milbank reminds us, is reminiscent of Bluto Blutarsky's legendary pep talk in "Animal House." "Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?" Bluto bellows. "Hell, no!" Milbank also is superb in describing how Beck manipulates his listeners by dredging up the nuttiest whoppers from the blogosphere, presenting them as serious alternatives to conventional truths and then taking a perfectly neutral pose, a la "I'm not suggesting anything. I'm asking questions." In Beck's "all is possible" world, viewers learn that Obama may (or may not) have a secret "enemies list" and that his health-care bill may (or may not) extend coverage to house pets.
In looking for comparative historical figures, Milbank likens Beck to Father Charles Coughlin, the fiery "radio priest" whose populist (and increasingly anti-Semitic) harangues during the Great Depression reached into millions of American homes. It's a stretch, to say the least. Coughlin, born and raised in Canada, led a movement calling for the redistribution of wealth and a looser money supply based on silver currency. Beck's sympathies are almost exactly the reverse. A better comparison, I suspect, is to Sen. Joe McCarthy, the Wisconsin Red-hunter, who is one of Beck's heroes. Both men created a highly suspect back story to their early lives -- McCarthy as a bogus war hero, Beck with disputed tales of pain and redemption. Both men mastered the art of conspiracy, both learned that bad publicity is far better than no publicity, and both produced the perfect enemy for their times: the shadowy liberal elites who "run" the government, the corporations and the media.
Missing from Milbank's book is how, exactly, the groundwork was laid for a character like Beck. When and why did our culture become so coarse? And who else is responsible for this dumbed-down blood sport we see daily on TV? Glenn Beck didn't arrive in a vacuum, and he's hardly alone. Watching him masquerade as Tom Paine, a leading revolutionary-era patriot, may make one queasy, but it's no worse, really, than watching Keith Olbermann, MSNBC's leading blowhard, masquerade as Edward R. Murrow. Sadly, where cable news is concerned, there are plenty of tears to go around.
David Oshinsky, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, teaches at the University of Texas and
New York University.