Amid the Glenn Beck Phenomenon

old glory mikeIt was July 5, the day after Independence Day. We pulled into the parking lot of a community hall at Dayton, Idaho (population 450), for an evening with religious-Right media phenomenon Glenn Beck. I opened the car door and we were buffeted by a pig-manure stench from working barns nearby.

We came from Logan, Utah, a larger town thirty-five miles south in the beautiful Cache Valley, bordered by purple mountains running north–south on each side, home to occasional mountain lions. My car companions were Mormons. So is Beck (and so are failed presidential aspirant Mitt Romney and 2 per cent of Americans). Two nights before we’d also been part of Beck’s audience, that time at the “Freedom Fire” pre-Independence Day entertainment at Utah State University’s football stadium.

This article is largely about Glenn Beck (below), the apotheosis of religious-Rightism, but it’s also about ways of thinking in middle America, unfiltered through the “progressive” media, where sneer is the default mode.

glenn beck

To a normally sceptical Australian, US religious-Right ways can be confronting. But the locals would probably view Aussies as unpatriotic, lackadaisical and sacrilegious.

Utah and Idaho are among the “fly-over states” of the USA, states beyond the pale for the east- and west-coast liberal intelligentsia. Utah and Idaho are two of the most Republican states, with 73 per cent and 65 per cent support respectively in presidential voting. The philosophy in these parts is patriotism, piety, states’ rights and bearing arms. Utah and Idaho are second and third-ranked (behind Kentucky) for gun ownership. One of my Mormon friends owns sixty guns (including muskets)—but he hunts and traps for a living.

At the Deer Cliff family restaurant, a waiter turned out to be a young son, a US Marine machine-gunner on leave. We chatted about deployments, machine-gun types and grenade launchers. I wasn’t sure how much to tip him.

As for Beck, he talked about ninety minutes at Dayton, delivering the most accomplished oratory I’ve ever heard. He’s been living off his eloquence for more than thirty years. My friends warned me he’d cry, and he did, at least six times.

When we entered the hall, two formidable black-clad police were off to one side. “Why are you here?” I asked them. “Mr Beck requested it,” one of them replied, deadpan. It turned out that Beck was using a table-full of historic mementos worth more than $1 million as props for extempore history lessons, and they needed guarding.

Aged fifty, and six feet two inches, Beck is homely and bespectacled. He wore brown shirt, faded jeans and suede shoes. He held the audience of 700 spellbound, me included. No Australian speaker of any persuasion gets even near Beck’s magic.

Beck is much loved in the mid-West, and last year he bought a family ranch at nearby Weston, Idaho (population 440). When he lards his speeches with prayers for crops and tales of his neighbour’s horse eating Beck’s grass, it rings authentic.

Most of his long speech was ad-libbed, but he may have cued parts of it from an iPad. No hired speechwriter could come up with such personal stuff. He began with a parable about his family life. He was building a small mountain home and insisted on junking the planned $1500 doors and matching cabinetry. Instead he scrounged a dozen mismatched $100 doors from saleyards, along with tired old dressers and vanity units. Beck was recreating the emotional feel of his grandfather Janssen’s homestead, built from odds and ends: “Nothing matched, but in a way, everything did.”

Janssen, he continued, was illiterate but a top machinist at the Boeing plant at Seattle—he used tricks to read the blueprints. Beck as a kid would do unpaid work for Janssen all summer vacation, feeding chickens, gathering eggs and cleaning out the coops. He slept in the hot attic with Janssen, who would tell Beck wonderful stories.

Beck then cut to the present, describing how on a hot night on July 2 he and his son (adopted) Raphe chatted about the day’s events—rounding up cows, mending a fence, chasing badgers, Raphe trying his first ride on a horse. “I kissed my son good night as he snuggled close by my side, safe, content and sleepy. As I lay there smiling, I reflected on just how much I love and miss my grandfather.” Here Beck cried. “It was at that moment with the help of the moonlight I could just make out my mismatched door.” Here we cried.

Beck painted himself successfully as an everyman. He knows how to connect with a crowd. In reality, his main home in Dallas is on two acres and has seven bedrooms, and his childhood was not idyllic. But Beck at Dayton was inspiring his audience with the good stuff from his family life.

With his audience captivated, he moved on to messages of religion, morality and patriotism. He read from original letters penned by Abe Lincoln, flourished a Puritan’s Tyndale English-language Bible, held up a bogus Swedish citizenship certificate issued to a Jew by Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest in 1944, and a violet star worn by less lucky Bible scholars in the camps. He also showed us the map used by Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong to pick a landing spot on the moon—it was covered in Xs for unsafe and Os for safe. (His point was that Neil Armstrong’s success was in the wake of selfless preparatory work by earlier Apollo teams.)

He had the microphone used by “Tokyo Rose” (Iva Toguri) to broadcast to US troops. It turned out that she was actually a patriot sending them coded warnings of Japanese bombing raids, and was secretly giving medicines to prisoners of war in Japan. But she was scapegoated by the US press and jailed for six years. When he first told this story on his broadcast channel last year, he actually used that seventy-year-old mike.

Beck was pushing back against the liberals’ harping on America’s dark past. Beck acknowledges the grim episodes—indeed, in 1866, only five miles from Dayton, US troops massacred several hundred Shoshones at Bear River, violence exceeded only by the massacre at Wounded Knee. But Beck emphasises the heroic and benevolent traits in America’s story. Beck’s history adviser is minister and Republican stalwart David Barton, whom Beck calls “The Library of Congress in shoes”. Barton runs a case that America was founded as an explicitly Christian nation. He lacks credibility among academic historians.

I’ll fast-forward to the ending of Beck’s speech, skipping an hour on an emotional rollercoaster. He had an easel on stage still covered with a white cloth. He praised the global role and bravery of the American armed forces. (Why in daily Australian life are our own troops and veterans so invisible and unremarked?) He spoke of the uncertainty of success as the first boats hit the Normandy beaches in 1944. He said only one American flag survived the landing, the one on LST 493. Then he whipped away the cloth from the easel, and on it, in a gold frame, was that flag, with about a third of it missing, shot away. We all gasped. (I later found he’d paid $350,000 for it at auction.) Beck grew tearful. “I’m such a girl!” he confessed, and the audience laughed with him.

Beck’s final words were the quotes from Lincoln’s second inaugural, “with malice toward none, with charity for all” and Beck produced a bloodstained piece of sheet from Lincoln’s deathbed.

Then aides with roving mikes took questions. The first was from a woman nearly 100 years old, who said her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren were all Beck fans. “Thank you for what you have done and showed us, for leading us and motivating us to think for ourselves about important things we need educating about to understand. Thank you!” she said.

Someone asked him when he would create a public museum for his historical items. He said when he had $20 million to spare, but it was slow going because he rated other charities higher priority, including charities based on loving children who are not born. The audience applauded. Beck, by the way, earns $90 million a year from his media outlets, even more than Oprah Winfrey.

On the other side of the hall, another woman took a mike. She had lost a son serving in Afghanistan, she said (here another tremor went through the audience), and she was grateful to Beck for his patriotic messages helping to unify her country. She had two copies of the book Lone Survivor signed by Navy Seal author Marcus Luttrell and she said, “I want you to have one of them.” Were those questioners pre-selected? I don’t know. But the whole hall was in a mood of inspiration.

Beck gave the proceeds of the evening ($28,000 gross) entirely to local arts charities, and didn’t charge either for his July 3 speaking stint at Logan. A year earlier, speaking at nearby Preston, Idaho (a metropolis of 5000) he raised $120,000 for local charities.

Beck has made foot-in-mouth comments in the past (much dwelt on by the media) but here’s a positive anecdote. Some 60,000 Central American children have poured into the USA illegally in the past year as a result of Obama offering amnesties against deportation—much as Kevin Rudd’s relaxing of border controls led to 50,000 asylum seekers flooding in here. Beck has condemned Obama’s amnesty, but in mid-July he organised and led a million-dollar relief effort for the interned children at McAllen, Texas, involving truck-trailer loads of food and toys.

It was heartfelt Beck, alienating some supporters who thought he should let Obama’s crisis fester. Mormons are by far the most anti-Obama religious group in the USA, giving Obama an 18 per cent approval rating, compared with 37 per cent approval by Protestants and 72 per cent by Muslims.

Another action example is that Beck, like many middle-aged Americans, loved Levi jeans. In 2011, Levi’s creative directors came up with a television commercial featuring teenaged males in Levi’s braving police riot lines, to the voice-over of poetry by Charles Bukowski: “Your life is your life, don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission … You are marvelous, the gods wait to delight in you.” Beck took the view that Levi’s was celebrating leftist rabble. He not only gave Levi an on-air pasting but launched his own US-made designer jeans, on patriotic themes and selling, online only, for $130. Levis quickly pulled its edgy ad. Beck’s critics overlooked the fact that Beck’s clothing profits go to his charity Mercury One.

The mainstream media is no friend of Beck. The Independence Day fireworks organisers at Logan invited him at the last minute as a ten-minute patriotic speaker. Several Logan councillors objected that Beck was too “divisive” for such a role, which became the lead story for the valley’s Herald Journal. The Journal painted Beck as a demagogue and twice in two days mentioned that Beck had got so angry on-air at his ranch that he once stepped outside to fire a gun in the air. The organisers responded by offering money back to any ticket-holder who objected to Beck. The day after, the Journal reported only three money-back requests. Then it ran a correction that even those three requests were unrelated to Beck.

As happens in small towns, we bumped into the Logan mayor Craig Peterson in the street, and he remarked that to have uninvited Beck to mollify three liberal councillors would have created a national furore.

At the event, Beck avoided speaking politically, apologising for every divisive statement he had ever made. The audience cheered his message about patriotism and unity.

The Journal led its report next day by saying that Beck received “an apparently warm welcome”—the first time I’d seen such an equivocal phrase. Running a ruler over the Journal’s report, I found there were twenty-three inches hostile, twenty-two inches “straight”, and under two inches positive. The Letters page and on-line comments ran hot with Beck defenders.

This slanted reporting is nothing unusual. On July 29, 2013, the Salt Lake Tribune ran a guest feature by arts academic Alexandra Karl headlined, “Glenn Beck’s nazi exhibit”. She had probably never attended Beck’s show, as she named the venue wrongly. Her conclusion was that because Beck owned and displayed Nazi memorabilia, he was part of the Hitler personality cult and “a sympathizer rather than a critic … It reveals more about Tea Party sensibilities and Beck’s personal values than I dared thought possible.” She highlighted one allegedly Beck-owned souvenir, “a satin handkerchief browned with Hitler’s blood”. This was in fact a napkin from the meeting room blown up by anti-Nazi plotter Count Stauffenberg in 1944, and Beck didn’t own it, he’d borrowed it. He never claimed it was Hitler’s blood.

More to the point, Beck was showcasing two themes of exhibits. One set involved seminal Americana from the country’s struggle for independence and freedom, such as Abraham Lincoln’s desk and a Bible brought to America on the Mayflower. The other set involved items related to tyrannies, as a “never again” moral lesson. The Tribune defended the indefensible by saying that Ms Karl was merely a guest columnist, as though her piece had appeared in the paper by magic.

The highlight of Beck’s career is his “Restoring Honor” rally at Washington Mall on August 28, 2010. Beck’s purpose was to honour US servicemen, who he considered were being disparaged by liberals. American conservatives—including my Mormon friends—swarmed to the event from all over the country. Beck and Sarah Palin (who prayed for ten minutes) spoke from the steps of the Lincoln Monument. They gave an award to (among others) Marine Sergeant James “Eddie” Wright, who lost both hands in a firefight in Iraq but now teaches hand-to-hand combat at the marines base at Quantico, Virginia. The rally raised $5.5 million for wounded veterans.

The crowd crammed the three kilometres of the Mall. The size of that crowd was the political take-home point, so how did the media handle that? I made my own estimate by comparing an aerial picture of an MCG grand final crowd (100,000) with the aerial of the mall crowd, and got a result something like four times, or 400,000. CBS News hired helicopter-borne crowd-count professionals and got a curious result of about 90,000. Associated Press ran an equally ludicrous figure of “tens of thousands”. NBC ran an irrational number of “tens to hundreds of thousands”, while the liberal New York Times was too embarrassed to mention any figure and settled for “enormous”. Top estimate (Sky News) was 500,000. Beck joked that there was “over a thousand people”.

A month later, US progressives staged a counter-rally called “One Nation”. Despite unions busing in their members, the rally gathered a far smaller crowd which, unlike Beck’s crowd, departed leaving the Mall covered in rubbish. Conservative blogger Michelle Malkin was the first person to notice that the rally organisers, which included the Communist Party of the United States, had later substituted, for their own rally, a picture online of the huge Mall crowd at the 1963 Martin Luther King “I have a dream” rally. The mainstream media didn’t pick up on that great scoop.

Beck has come to national fame from a troubled background. At eight he began self-training as a talk-show host by playing back his improvised radio shows. He went on-air for real at thirteen when he easily won a competition for an AM radio gig, and at seventeen he successfully applied for a weekend FM job in Seattle, to the surprise of his new employers who found that they had hired a schoolkid. By twenty-one he was on a salary of $70,000.

But his home life was mess. His mother suffered alcoholism and depression and divorced when Beck was thirteen. Her new lover, according to Beck, was an abuser. Mother and lover went out on a small boat on Puget Sound and both drowned. Beck, who was fifteen at the time, has claimed it was a suicide pact.

Beck moved back in with his father. Beck says that his paternal grandfather sexually abused Beck’s father, and Beck’s father was later abused by a series of carers, mentors and preachers. This made the father dysfunctional and unloving, but not a sexual abuser. “My family was a shipwreck,” he weepily told his radio audience.

Beck became an alcoholic and a drug addict, and says that he was high every day for fifteen years (allow for some hyperbole). His first marriage failed after producing two daughters. One suffered cerebral palsy. By the age of thirty he was washed up spiritually, a radio has-been, and suicidal. He was saved by Alcoholics Anonymous in 1994.

Beck met his second wife Tania in 1998 when she walked into the New Haven radio station to pick up a Sony Walkman prize. Here’s Beck’s description:

I apologize, but guys will understand this. My wife is hot and she wouldn’t have sex with me until we got married, and she wouldn’t marry me unless we had a religion. I’m like, ah, you’ve got to be kidding me! I’ve got to go to church for this?

 The result was that they tested various religious creeds and settled on the Mormon faith. Their quest also brought them to militant conservatism. His polemical style, especially after 9/11 and the Obama election, took him to top rating at CNN, then Fox News.

He scandalised liberals by, for example, calling Obama an anti-white racist, which gave his opponents ammunition for a boycott of Fox advertisers. Beck and Fox separated in 2011. (Obama had butted in to take the side of a black professor, Henry Gates, arrested by a white police sergeant. Both Obama and Beck backed down.)

Instead of hawking his talent to a new employer, Beck created his own branded channels, with the motto, “The truth lives here”. These channels are run by his company Mercury Radio Arts, offering subscriber and streamed television, radio, publishing, stage and web content. Beck has also written twenty-two books, eleven of which have made the Times best-seller lists, half a dozen hitting the number-one spot. Typical titles include The Real America: Messages from the Heart and Heartland and Cowards: What Politicians, Radicals, and the Media Refuse to Say.

His stage shows are his one-man-band tours. They are also filmed and run in 300 to 400 theatres nationwide, much as New York Met operas find a global audience via film. His movie Man in the Moon, with an historico-political message, sold out 20,000 seats at the launch.

Barely sleeping at nights, he arrives at work on any morning with enough philosophical, entrepreneurial and political energy to keep his staff in turmoil for a week. He tosses off hours of radio and television chatting and sermonising per day.

Beck’s a man to be loved or hated. There’s not much in between. I stayed nine days in Utah, survived a wine-free family barbecue, and, unusually, attended church on Sunday. I stayed with people who overtly take pride in their religion, their community and their country. It was just luck that I twice got to hear their favourite son Glenn Beck speaking and to feel his impact.

Tony Thomas, a retired financial journalist, is a frequent contributor to Quadrant.

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