Political Philosophy, Politics

Who Is Glenn Beck?

Last weekend, somewhere between 300,000 and 500,000 showed up by the Lincoln Memorial for Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally. At The New York Times, Ross Douthat wonders if the media isn’t underestimating Beck’s talents:

The Fox News host had promised that the rally, billed as a celebration of American values, would be an explicitly apolitical event. And so it came to pass: save for an occasional “Don’t Tread On Me,” banner, the crowded Mall was nearly free of political signs and T-shirt slogans, and there was barely a whisper of the crusade against liberalism that consumes most of Beck’s on-air hours.

Instead, Beck served up something considerably stranger. This was a tent revival crossed with a pep rally intertwined with a history lecture married to a U.S.O. telethon — and that was just in the first hour.

There was something innately Tocquevillian about the rally. The focus wasn’t on President Obama’s agenda or winning elections, but on restoring American values. In that sense, it was a deeply conservative rally in a sense deeper than the traditional meeting. It wasn’t a rally for Republican politicians, rather a rally for small-r republican values. In that sense, Beck seems to be aiming for something higher than just transitory partisan gain. His rally was exactly what was advertised, an attempt to restore the honorable values of America’s founding.

First of all, the idea that this was some racist meeting is prima facie ridiculous. It’s a silly media narrative, and nothing more. Beck’s decision to hold it on the anniversary of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” address was not necessarily the wisest—but Beck went out of his way to honor Rev. King and his legacy, including giving honors to a black pastor who was present when King spoke. The cheap shots about race say more about the media’s obsessions than it does about Beck’s message.

But I’m not a Glenn Beck fan—his show always seemed like a strange mix of bizarre conspiracy theories mixed with Beck’s maudlin performances. Quite frankly, it seems as though there’s something not quite right with the man.

At the same time, I have to give him some credit. Beck is not an easy man to characterize. He seems legitimately interested in big ideas and isn’t afraid to discuss them on-air. To see a conservative media personality hawk a book is not new—for that book to be F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom certainly is. Beck isn’t like the usual crop of conservative media stars—he is provocative, but he’s far more audacious. He doesn’t just want to see Democrats defeated in elections, he wants to remake the national character.

But Beck has a rather sordid history, having been one of the first radio “shock jocks” before his conversion to both Mormonism and political conservatism. His on-air histrionics and his occasional forays into conspiracy theory detract from his message. Unlike Rush Limbaugh, who brings a showman’s instincts to his radio program, Beck sounds more like a tent-revival preacher (which may explain the tenor of this weekend’s rally). Beck’s sometimes bizarre chalkboard rants, his on-air histrionics, and tenor of his show are hard to get used to, especially if one is not inclined to accept his message.

Glenn Beck is not an easy man to pigeon-hole. He seems to understand, as too few conservatives do, that if the conservative movement is to thrive, it has to be based on something more than opposition to Obama. Beck’s show isn’t afraid to point viewers to important works in conservative political though. But at the same time conservatives should think critically about his message: there are times he veers into Bircher territory.

Beck is undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with, and those who dismiss him offhand likely are underestimating him. Certainly the media narrative that Beck is a nutcase, a racist, a bigot, etc. is the product of the typical left-wing smear campaign levied against anyone popular on the right. But Beck is a polarizing figure, and in order for him to get his message out, he has to do more than preach to the converted. Restoring America’s honor is a worthwhile enterprise—but it remains to be see whether Beck’s movement can build upon its successes. If it becomes yet another conspiracy-minded movement based largely on opposition to Obama, or worse a cult of personality surrounding Beck, it will fail. If it becomes a movement that stands on enduring principles, it may succeed. Skeptical as I am about Beck, this weekend was more the latter than the former. If Ross Douthat has underestimated Glenn Beck, so too perhaps have I.

Campaign 2008, Politics

Romney’s Faith In America Speech

I happened to catch most of Mitt Romney’s “Faith in America” speech and was quite impressed by it. Apparently, others have had the same reaction. (NRO’s The Corner has plenty of other reactions.)

Romney could have easily hurt himself with this speech, but at the very least he’s no worse off than he was before—and now that he’s delivered a speech that shows real passion, I have a feeling it will give him a decent boost. Perhaps not enough to keep Huckabee from winning in Iowa, but enough to keep him in the race.

His rhetoric was excellent, and I also appreciated his metaphor of the loss of Europe’s Christian heritage and the rise of radical Islam. However, the part that really got to me was the end:

Recall the early days of the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia, during the fall of 1774. With Boston occupied by British troops, there were rumors of imminent hostilities and fears of an impending war. In this time of peril, someone suggested that they pray. But there were objections. “They were too divided in religious sentiments,” what with Episcopalians and Quakers, Anabaptists and Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Catholics.

Then Sam Adams rose, and said he would hear a prayer from anyone of piety and good character, as long as they were a patriot.

And so together they prayed, and together they fought, and together, by the grace of God … they founded this great nation.

I have to admit, in terms of American political rhetoric, I think that part of Romney’s speech was the best of 2007 by a long shot. It was delivered with real passion and conviction, and the message was strong: religious convictions do matter, but they matter in terms of the common principles we all share. There will be those whose theological differences with the Latter-Day Saints will never allow them to support a Mormon for public office—and while I find that attitude perilously close to requiring a religious test for office, there is nothing in the Constitution which prevents individual voters from exercising their individual consciences in picking a Presidential candidate. However, for those wondering just how Romney’s faith will or will not influence his job as a President got their answer.

Romney did exclude atheists and agnostics from his speech, which was a notable and lamentable omission. Still, they’re not the audience that Romney is going for at this point in the race. He’ll have to recognize those groups later and more fully explain how they fit into his vision of America, but that is a task for another day. This was a speech that was directly primarily at Evangelical Christians, and Romney spoke convincingly to his intended audience in language they could understand and appreciate.

In the end, I don’t think Romney will get the nomination, and if he loses Iowa I think he’ll be sunk. Still, today’s speech was a masterwork of American rhetoric, a great speech about our shared values as a society, and it was delivered very well. This was Romney at his best, and he looked and sounded like someone who could do justice to the Office of President. It may not be enough to win the race, but it’s still a speech that will be remembered as one of the best political addresses of the year and perhaps one of the better ones of our times.