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Beck describes his performances as "the fusion of entertainment and enlightenment" and the entertainment comes first. "Like Limbaugh, Glenn Beck is a former Top 40 DJ," radio historian Marc Fisher explains, "first and foremost an entertainer, who happens to have stumbled into a position of political prominence." Unlike Limbaugh, however, Beck is a "radio nostalgic," in love with the storytelling power of a man with a microphone. He started in radio at age 13, inspired by a recording of golden-age broadcasts given to him by his mother who later committed suicide, leaving the young Beck deeply traumatized. "He loves radio," says his longtime producer and on-air sidekick Stu Burguiere. "The way the mind becomes its own theater and the listener engages in the medium with you, drawing their own pictures in their heads." Beck once lovingly re-created the 1938 Orson Welles classic War of the Worlds for XM Satellite Radio, and he named his production company Mercury Radio Arts in homage to Welles' Mercury Theatre on the Air.
As melodrama, it's thumping good stuff. But as politics, it's sort of a train wreck at once powerful, spellbinding and uncontrolled. Like William Jennings Bryan whipping up populist Democrats over moneyed interests or the John Birch Society brooding over fluoride, Beck mines the timeless theme of the corrupt Them thwarting a virtuous Us. This flexible narrative often contains genuinely uncomfortable truths. Some days "they" are the unconfirmed policy "czars" whom Beck fears Obama is using to subvert constitutional government and he has some radical-sounding sound bites to back it up. Some days "they" are the network of leftist community organizers known as ACORN and his indictment of the group is looking stronger every day. But he also spins yarns of less substance. He tells his viewers that Obama's volunteerism efforts are really an attempt to create a "civilian national-security force that is just as strong, just as powerful as the military." While scourging Obama and the Democratic Congress, Beck takes pains to say that the ranks of the nation's would-be oppressors know no party. In his recent instabook Glenn Beck's Common Sense, a huge best seller, with more than 1 million copies moved in less than four months he wrote, "Most Americans remain convinced that the country is on the wrong track. They know that SOMETHING JUST DOESN'T FEEL RIGHT but they don't know how to describe it or, more importantly, how to stop it." The book's pox-on-both-parties populism evokes the quixotic campaigns of Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot, but with an eerie sound track.
He is having an impact. Along with St. Louis, Mo., blogger Jim Hoft, whose site is called Gateway Pundit, Beck pushed one of Obama's so-called czars, Van Jones, to resign during Labor Day weekend. Jones, whose task was to oversee a green-jobs initiative, turned out to be as enchanted by conspiracies as Beck he once theorized that "white polluters and the white environmentalists" are "steering poison into the people-of-color's communities" and signed a petition demanding an investigation into whether the Bush Administration had a hand in the 9/11 attacks. On Sept. 14 the Senate overwhelmingly voted to cut off all federal funds to ACORN, and the U.S. Census Bureau severed its ties to the organization. This followed Beck's masterly promotion of a series of videos made by two guerrilla filmmakers who posed as a pimp and prostitute while visiting ACORN offices around the country. The helpful community organizers were taped offering advice on tax evasion and setting up brothels for underage girls.
By affirming its suspicions and assuaging its sense of powerlessness, Beck bonds with his rapidly growing audience. "I continue to be amazed by the power of everyday Americans," Beck said after Jones resigned. What the Obama adviser called a "smear campaign" against him was, Beck said, simply "honest questioning." And there's more to come, he warned: "Judging by the other radicals in the Administration, I expect that questioning to continue for the foreseeable future."
The Profit Motive
We tell ourselves a tale in America, and you can read it in Latin on the back of a buck: E pluribus unum. Many people from many lands, made one in a patriotic forge. And there's truth in that story it conjures powerful pictures in the theater of our national mind. But it can also be misleading. Lots of Americans can't stand one another, don't trust each other and are willing even eager to believe the worst about one another. This story is as old as the gun used by Vice President Aaron Burr to kill his political rival Alexander Hamilton. And it's as new as the $1 millionplus in fresh campaign contributions heaped on Republican Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina after he hollered "You lie!" at the President during a joint session of Congress. Anger and suspicion ebb and flow through our history, from the anti-Catholic musings of the 19th century Know-Nothing Party to the truthers and birthers of today.
We're in a flood stage, and who's to blame? The answer is like the estimates of the size of the crowd in Washington: Whom do you trust? Either the corrupt, communist-loving traitors on the left are causing this, or it's the racist, greedy warmongers on the right, or maybe the dishonest, incompetent, conniving media, which refuse to tell the truth about whomever you personally happen to despise.
But we can all agree that no matter where it comes from rubbing the sore has become a lucrative business. The mutual contempt of the American extremes draws crowds and fattens wallets at bookstores, cable-news departments, AM radio stations and documentary film fests. Wilson's campaign kitty is just one example, and a fairly modest one at that. (His opponent, Democrat Rob Miller, also raked in $1 million in new donations thanks to the outburst.) Michael Moore makes far more than that with his capitalist-bashing movies. The new Senator from Minnesota, Al Franken, cashed in handsomely with his conservative-taunting books. Or check out Beck Inc. to see how loudmouthing can earn you a river of cash.
There are bigger one-voice enterprises in the world: Oprah, Rush, Dr. Phil. But few are more widely diversified. In June, estimators at Forbes magazine pegged Beck's earnings over the previous 12 months at $23 million, a ballpark figure confirmed by knowledgeable sources, and this year's revenues are on track to be higher. The largest share comes from his radio show, which is heard by more than 8 million listeners on nearly 400 stations one of the five biggest radio audiences in the country. Beck is one of only a handful of blockbuster authors who have reached No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller lists with both nonfiction and fiction. (Among the others: John Grisham, Patricia Cornwell and William Styron. Unlike them, however, Beck gets a lot of help from his staff.) His latest book, Arguing with Idiots, will be published this month, and if things go as expected, it will be the third No. 1 with his name on the front published in the past 12 months. Taking a page from Stephen King who once called Beck "Satan's mentally challenged younger brother" Beck recently entered into a partnership with Simon & Schuster that pays him a share of profits rather than a traditional author's royalty, and he plans to create a range of books for every audience, from children to teens to adults.