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Glenn Beck: Making Sense of the Man and the Movement

4 years ago
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"Do you think Barack Obama was watching, maybe from one of those helicopters?" asked someone on the bus that was shuttling tired but not weary participants from Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" event. For Leslie McPherson of Villa Rica, Ga., who had taken an even longer bus ride to participate in the Saturday gathering on Washington's National Mall, it was all about the politics. The president may not have attended the event, but he was in the thoughts of this veteran of local Tea Party rallies, sitting next to her military veteran brother. "What's going on now," she said, "you don't know when it's going to end." McPherson, 49, thinks Obama "just kind of accelerated" America's decline. And Beck? "He's kind of a goofball," she used to think. Now, "he's got me hooked."

Goofball or sage? You could get whiplash trying to follow the contradictions of Glenn Beck and the movement he leads -- though he says he does not.

Is Beck the entertainer he always admitted to being or the catalyst for a spiritual awakening, a role he played on Saturday? Is he a figure to bring Americans together, in the mold of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, a man he honored while professing not to know the date of his iconic "I Have a Dream" speech? Or does Beck's broad American tapestry -- which may exclude atheists, liberals and anyone who doesn't agree with his vision -- fit the profile of a healer-in-chief?

Beck appeared on Fox News after the rally and said he regretted calling the president "a racist," then swiftly segued into doubts about Obama's religious beliefs, saying, "He is a guy who understands the world through liberation theology, which is oppressor and victim." It was something else the president had to respond to.

Beck had said the gathering, which drew anywhere from 87,000 to 1 million people -- depending on if you believed aerial photographs or Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann -- was to honor the military, which it did, and that it would not be political, which, of course, it was.

You could find anything you wanted there, including Sarah Palin, appearing as the mother of a soldier, who nonetheless took a sly dig at the present administration when she said: "We must not fundamentally transform America as some would want."

You could find members of every ethnic group and religion represented on the stage, noticeably more than in the predominantly white crowd that listened to strains of Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" and swayed to "Lift Every Voice and Sing," the black national anthem, which few seemed to recognize.

"Give me your tired, your poor" -- Emma Lazarus's words engraved on the Statue of Liberty -- drew applause when highlighted in the midst of a program that honored ministers and philanthropists. When I asked Bill Smith his thoughts, the prolific Arkansas-based blogger named Americans for Prosperity's Blogger of the Year 2010 "in recognition of leadership in advancing economic freedom and liberty through modern media," he quoted the Bible. For you have the poor always with you, said the military veteran and traditional values conservative. You see, "If a man won't work," he said to explain why helping the less fortunate can also mean an end to "entitlements," a dirty word to the faithful in Washington.

Beck had told those planning to make the trek to Washington from across the country to leave the signs and anger at home. Besides messages on a few T-shirts, they mostly complied. But talk to nine out of 10 and the anger and frustration surfaced -- not in tone, perhaps, though the man who hissed that I was a "stealth" journalist didn't even pretend to be nice -- but in their feelings about a country headed toward socialism and the urgency of fighting back.

Would Martin Luther King make an appearance at the Lincoln Memorial, as he had 47 years earlier at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom? Beck had courted controversy by scheduling his rally on the anniversary of that day and his attempt to "reclaim the civil rights movement." It turned out King's spirit was a major player, though the civil rights martyr that showed up was only about character, and not the economic, racial and "social justice" that the major parts of his famed speech called for. An e-mailer called me a "bigot" for pointing out the lack of racial diversity on Saturday. But when Beck shows images of the 1963 march on jumbo screens, he is inviting the comparison. It's simple observation, not commentary, to comment on the crowd, then and now.

Unlike the 1963 marchers
and King -- who looked to the federal government and the courts to free them from the shackles of states' rights that restricted everything from voting to employment to choice of marriage partner -- these modern-day protesters look to Beck and each other to get the federal government out of their lives.

What a difference 47 years makes.

No one owns King, that's true. Alveda King, the civil rights leader's niece, made an appearance with Beck, a validation for many that King would be on their side. Al Sharpton's "Reclaim the Dream" march had the support of King's son Martin Luther King III. The marchers at another section of the Mall paid their own tribute to King and had a different interpretation of his message; they might as well have been miles away.

The irony is that the man once scorned by those who did not share his dream is now being fought over, his words parsed to fit the message of Glenn Beck, who on Saturday said he could relate to King because he had not yet been carved in stone on a mountainside. (Though with a twinkle in his eye, Beck looked as though he might not feel that uncomfortable sharing a granite perch with a past president.)

Leave it to an outsider to put the mixed message in perspective. Yango Sawyer of Washington accepted Beck the showman and Beck the visionary. Sawyer, 58, an activist who helps the formerly incarcerated, is a serious man. But he is also a salesman, and on Saturday was doing a great business selling flag pins and red, white and blue bandannas, $3 each, two for $5. "Wear America to work every day," he shouted from his spot on a corner while streams of people left Beck's rally. Then, in a quieter voice, he said to me, "I'm doing the same thing they've been doing to us, exploiting us." Sawyer said he had served time in prison himself, and was an addict though he's now clean, "over 12 years."

Though Sawyer said that "black people continue to struggle," he wasn't mad at Beck's choice of date and venue, and even had a soft spot for someone who also knows how to sell. "This is America," Sawyer said. "He should be able to do what he wants to do."

Sawyer could afford to be understanding. Like Beck, he was having a very good day.

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