The event held on the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered at the same site, was not overtly political. That is, unless you believe the aim was to mobilize evangelicals, who have been feeling somewhat left out of the current right-wing politics dominated by spending-obsessed Tea Partiers. If the religious right gets energized enough to elect Republicans in the Nov. 2 midterm congressional elections, Mr. Beck’s call to arms will be largely responsible.
“Something that is beyond man is happening,” Mr. Beck told the crowd on the Washington Mall, which numbered anywhere from fewer than 100,000 to one million depending on your politics. “America today begins to turn back to God.”
Ms. Palin, the Republican vice-presidential nominee in 2008, joined Mr. Beck on stage at the August rally. A couple of weeks later, the duo appeared together again before a sold-out crowd at an Anchorage arena.
“We would like to announce that in 2012, that we will both be,” Mr. Beck began before taking a painfully long pause, “voting.”
The prospect of getting this close to Mr. Beck in person has left Elaine, a fifty-something woman from working-class Queens waiting outside the studio, brimming with energy.
“I told them I was retired from the police department and they called back the next day with tickets,” explains the cheery blonde, who is a devoted listener of Mr. Beck’s three-hour weekday syndicated radio show, the third most popular in the country after those of Mr. Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.
Mr. Hannity also hosts a top-rated prime-time Fox News show, drawing nearly twice as many viewers as Rachel Maddow on Fox’s progressive rival, MSNBC, and four times more than the soon-to-leave Larry King on CNN.
Mr. Beck, who has 10 million unique weekly listeners on radio, has recently been drawing about 1.7 million viewers to his Fox show. Though that is significantly less than a year ago, he still crushes the competition, attracting almost three times more fans than his nearest rival. If the conservative media’s audience is any indication of ballot box strength, Republicans should clean up in the midterms.
Elaine’s friend Kathy, a petite Irish New Yorker with a throaty smoker’s voice, is the most avid reader. She has devoured most of the dozens of books Mr. Beck recommends on his show – pushing them up the best-seller lists the way Oprah Winfrey once did. Kathy has just finished Dismantling America, a collection of essays by Thomas Sowell, a black conservative and fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
“I read it in less than two days,” notes Kathy, describing the causal relationship between high taxes and unemployment advanced in the book.
Outside the studio, John from Rochester, a vice-president at an energy engineering firm, has monopolized the attention of Elaine and Kathy with his denunciations of Mr. Obama’s health-care reform law and the President’s failed attempt to push climate change legislation through Congress.
“I’m voting for you,” Elaine gushes.
Not quite as much, mind you, as when she sets her eyes on Mr. Beck in the flesh. That a recovering alcoholic and drug abuser, who takes medication for his attention deficit disorder, can summon this kind of devotion is either a testimony to Americans’ hunger for a return to simpler times or Mr. Beck’s persuasiveness.
“It’s not surprising that somebody like Mr. Beck is able to stir up a certain portion of the country,” Mr. Obama acknowledged recently, attributing the Fox News host’s appeal to Americans’ anxiety over their nation’s economy and security.
As with Ms. Palin, Mr. Beck’s true motives are the subject of widespread speculation. Is he merely interested in making money? If he is, he has certainly hit the mother lode, tapping a critical mass of Americans willing to shell out hundreds of dollars to attend one of his arena shows, buy his DVDs or subscribe to his website’s “Insider Extreme” edition.
Yet, his transition from schlock jock radio host and self-described clown and entertainer into a nearly humourless conservative missionary has, if anything, led to a parsing of his audience. Those looking only to be entertained may be disappointed. Mr. Beck, in his current incarnation, seems increasingly to appeal to hard-core believers alone.
Whether this suggests, as Mr. Beck has, that “God dropped a giant sandbag on my head,” calling him to “wake America up” is for a higher power to determine.
As we mingle outside the studio after the show, Mr. Beck exits, bodyguards and wife Tania in tow. Our invitations stipulated that he will not pose for photos or sign autographs, so no one dares ask.
“Thanks guys,” he offers, somewhat smaller than life, as he walks off into the Manhattan night.