This Sunday, apparently, no one knew who Glenn Beck was.
The "Chris Matthews Show" on NBC had a roundtable panel discussion about the man who claimed to be “restoring honor” in America, with panelists delving into Mr. Beck’s character as though he were lying on a couch in front of them.
Fox’s Chris Wallace, who works in the same office as Beck, marveled that he still doesn’t “know" who Beck is.
Why all the confusion?
Granted, Beck casting the event in a religious light caused for some scratching of heads. But whatever the motivation for the rally, the result was hardly unfamiliar to Beck-watchers.
Beck, after all, is no cipher. He is on television no fewer than five times a week, and during those five hours of head shaking and finger-wagging, he is not exactly shy about sharing his opinion.
And the Beck who brought thousands of Americans – 65,000 or 650,000? – to the National Mall Saturday is no more or less than what he is at 5 p.m. nightly on Fox News: The voice of the conservative, middle class, and red-tinted core of the country, which sees in America’s future only increasing cause for alienation – illegal immigration, more entitlement programs, and a perceived decay of America’s sense of rugged individualism.
The Sunday post-mortems, then, had some savor either of triumph or panic at Beck's success. It was like that scene from “Little Shop of Horrors” when the hapless Seymour wakes up to find his innocuous little plant has grown monstrous and taken over the entire greenhouse. Saturday was Beck’s greenhouse, and the entire country was made to watch.
With Fox's Mr. Wallace, Beck was given the platform to further add to his mystique as a conservative talisman. For critics, though, it was a spectacle as upsetting as it was surprising.
Time’s Joe Klein decreed that Beck was a “paranoid lunatic who is a great entertainer, and he is exploiting something that always happens in our country when the economy is bad and when we are at war.” Cue clips of World War II internment camps for Japanese-Americans and tales of German-speaking Americans being beaten up by fellow Americans.
Beck is “appealing to a broader section of the American public that feels that it needs to put a check on the administration," she said. "If we see a big Republican turnout in November, it's going to be partly not because people are loving Republicans but because they will do anything to check the power that is there.”
But is there something inherently wrong with that? Longtime journalist Donald Mazzella, who covered the Rev. Martin Luther King’s speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial 47 years ago, says in an e-mail: “Rallies of this sort always have a political element attached."
"The original march was as much political as social and clearly galvanized a whole generation of activists and political activity,” he adds.
Beck’s role today is to galvanize the other side of the political spectrum, Mr. Mazzella says, adding, "There seems to be a questioning of the Tea Party attendance, when the real question is: Why are so many apparently middle class people so concerned?”
Writer and book critic Antoinette Kuritz, who says she has in the past voted both sides of political tickets, thinks so.
People are trying to figure out Beck “because of the way his influence has grown. Arguably, he will impact more voters than MTV or Bono or Alec Baldwin or even Oprah. And he is not espousing liberal causes."
"Glenn Beck has made a point: The people are rejecting the paternalism of this administration, of [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi in particular," she says by e-mail. "They are tired of being told what is good for them, of having legislation thrust upon them with which they disagree. The people want a louder voice. They want to be heard. And, if necessary, they will band together until they are.”
Religion and politics
The packaging of the event in religious overtones, however, caused discomfort in some quarters.
“What is interesting to me is that Beck seems to see a benefit in cloaking his politics in religion, as if that somehow makes him safer and less threatening," says Mr. Hale, the political scientist. "It is as if he is arguing that religion is above the fray of messy and ugly politics.”
“The danger of Mr. Beck's claim that he is focused on religion is that he is attempting to define being a 'good Christian' with a host of other values that have nothing to do with a person's faith," he adds. "There are religiously observant people in all faiths who would actually call themselves politically liberal, yet Mr. Beck seeks to deny that as a possibility.”