Tears of a Clown

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank examines the media and political phenomenon that is Glenn Beck.

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    Tears of a Clown:
    Glenn Beck and the Tea Bagging of America
    By Dana Milbank
    Doubleday
    261 pp., $24.95
    View Caption

In his polemic biography of Glenn Beck, Tears of a Clown: Glenn Beck and the Tea Bagging of America, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank vows redundantly to expose the lachrymose talk show host by “quoting him in his own words.” It is a technique, the author points out, that Beck himself purports to use in attacking his vast cadre of political opponents, dead or alive, who range from Woodrow Wilson and Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt to Malia Obama, the president’s daughter.

In the case of Malia, 11 at the time of the broadcast, Beck quoted her in his own words for a radio skit. Here’s one line Beck created for her: “Daddy, why do you still let Sarah Palin destroy the environment? Why are – Daddy, why don’t you just put her in some sort of camp?” Here’s another question that Beck’s Malia asked her father: “Why do you hate black people so much?”

Beck subsequently apologized for dragging the president’s family into the mud – families of his myriad ideological enemies are strictly off limits he had said both before and after maligning Malia – but practicing what he preaches is hardly one of Beck’s strong suits.

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Crossing the line, however, is. For example, Beck spent a lot of air time – he’s on television and radio weekdays – propagating while simultaneously “trying to debunk” the rumor (although that might be too strong a word for it) that FEMA is setting up concentration camps for American citizens. In a show about the possibility of such camps in America, he asked guest James Meigs of Popular Mechanics if an Internet video narrated by a militia movement leader showed “a government-run concentration camp where atrocities – every reason to believe atrocities are going on?”

“Yes,” Meigs mechanically replied. On the next show, a day later, it was revealed that the video was of a North Korean camp, and weeks later Beck denied that he had ever said that the Obama administration was building concentration camps. He was just asking questions, trying to debunk something that clearly had him on high alert (virtually everything has him on high alert). Beck’s questions tend to be along the lines of, “Are you still cheating on your spouse?” Can’t disprove you aren’t, well....

Milbank’s fast-paced chronicle of Beck World ably details the meteoric rise of a low-rent radio shock jock to national phenomenon in less than a decade. Beck’s radio and television shows combined draw some 10 million Americans, nearly 4 percent of the public. Beck, Inc. is pulling in some $32 million annually. If he cries a lot on the air, he is crying all the way to the bank, the author points out. Not bad for a former abuser of drugs and alcohol who described his late 20th-century self as a “dirtbag.”

Hanging Beck with his own words is like shooting fish in a barrel. For starters there are so many of them. He called Obama a racist, and not just a garden variety bigot, but a man “who has a deep seated hatred for white people.” (That must make cabinet meetings pretty uncomfortable). Beck’s on-air shenanigans, too, are juicy targets, like the time he was waxing wroth about President Obama’s alleged sins against America while he simulated pouring gasoline on a guest. During the creepy charade Beck said, “President Obama, why don’t you just set us on fire?”

Interspersed with documenting a litany of quarter-truths, inaccuracies, clownishness, acute paranoia, mean-spirited invective, innuendo, pseudo history, and conspiracy theories, Milbank weaves in the basic story of Beck’s life. For a time, when he was a Connecticut DJ, he and Senator Joe Lieberman were pals. He and his second wife converted to Mormonism, and Milbank traces some of Beck’s apocalyptical tirades to certain beliefs of the Church of Latter Day Saints. In one chapter he delineates the similarities in the rhetoric of Beck and Father Charles E. Coughlin, the rabble-rousing priest of the 1930s who, like Beck, excoriated Franklin Roosevelt and predicted America’s demise as just around the corner.

In the end, Milbank loosely links Beck’s angry schtick to several criminal acts, including the murder of three police officers, committed by likely viewers. The author stops short of blaming Beck for the deaths, writing, “But the episode does show how Beck’s words are inspiring the fringe....” Beck himself sometimes cautions his fans not to do anything rash, presumably like pouring gasoline on someone.

The book grew out of a newspaper column that Milbank wrote, and one wonders if Beck is worth more than 750 words – or even that many. Or this review, for that matter. But the sad truth is that he is considerably more than a clown. He is a political bully who has the Republican Party cowed. Milbank quotes no less a light than conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks, who wrote that “every single elected leader in the Republican Party is afraid to take on Rush [Limbaugh] and Glenn Beck.” Now there’s something to worry about.

David Holahan is a freelance writer in East Haddam, Conn.

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