JULY 1, 2011
Illustration © Ed Wexler
The undisputed high point of Beck’s tenure in Baltimore was an elaborate prank built around a nonexistent theme park. The idea was to run a promotional campaign for the fictional grand opening of the world’s first air-conditioned underground amusement park, called Magicland. According to Beck and Gray, it was being completed just outside Baltimore. During the build-up, the two created an intricate and convincing radio world of theme-park jingles and promotions, which were rolled out in a slow buildup to the nonexistent park’s grand opening… On the day Magicland was supposed to throw open its air-conditioned doors, Beck and Gray took calls from enraged listeners who tried to find the park and failed. Among the disappointed and enraged was a woman who had canceled a no-refund cruise to attend the event. “They never told a soul what they were doing,” says Sean Hall, the B104 newsreader. “People just drove around in circles on the beltway for hours trying to find the place.”
— from Alexander Zaitchik’s Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance
GLENN BECK BROADCAST his last Fox show yesterday, after two and a half memorable years. In his final week he began with footage of rioting and looting in the streets of Chicago, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and Cairo. Anyone tuning in for the first time might wonder why these upsetting events evoked in this man only a caustic “I told you so.” As per usual, he played both puppet-master and puppet, performing his repertoire of goofy voices, bobbing, weaving, bringing his plump head right up into the camera. Addressing us as “America,” he jumped maniacally through a familiar list of names: George Soros, Saul Alinksy, Hugo Chavez, Woodrow Wilson; having already drilled into us the monikers of those who got our country into this ungodly mess, he didn’t need to ID them. He warned that any day we might be kneeling before a Caliphate. As always, Beck’s delirium held out the promise that he might, once and for all, completely unravel before our eyes. As a student of all things Beckian, I will miss him. “I watch so you don’t have to,” I tell my family and friends who long ago grew tired of my obsession. I picture myself as the cat sitting in front of a mouse hole while the rest of the house goes about its business. But unlike the cat, once in a while I have to ask myself why. Why, mother of God, am I drawn here, again and again?
This morning, doing “research,” I was entranced by a YouTube clip in which George Stephanopoulos surprises Michele Bachmann with the President’s birth certificate. He whips it out and reads to her: “This copy serves as prima facie evidence of the fact of birth in any court proceeding.” Bachmann remains eerily composed as she avoids eye contact with the document. “Well, then, that should settle it,” she says, her neck stiff as if in a brace, her pupils pinwheels as she searches for some way to put in the last word. “As long as someone introduces it…it’s whatshould settle it.” I wondered if Roger Ailes was watching. Please, I thought, someone give this woman a TV show.
Beck’s television career exploded in late 2008. Anticipating the election and looking to boost the numbers for the historically low-rated 5 pm slot, Roger Ailes plucked his new star from CNN’s Headline News, where Beck had doubled his audience in two years. The Glenn Beck Showdebuted on Fox in January, 2009, auspiciously the day before Barack Obama’s inauguration. At long last, he had found a target worthy of the unfocused, mischievous, spottily educated sensibility he had displayed as a Baltimore morning zoo DJ and later as a talk show host and “commentator.” Beck was ready for his close-up. To his ever-volatile mix of free-floating rage and shame, he added a new component: a saccharine sensitivity. He became a man who had only to mention how much he loved his country to theatrically choke back and then let flow a flash-flood of tears.
Beck could not have pulled off his transformation from self-described “recovering dirtbag” to weeping TV star without two critical elements: sobriety and religion. Probably he realized that he needed help that day in Baltimore when he was arrested for driving while intoxicated with one of the doors on his DeLorean hanging open. Beck has said that soon after, in 1994, he considered suicide. Instead he found AA and Tania, his second wife, whom he married in 1999. It was she who insisted that together they pick and embrace a church. Though raised Catholic, Beck chose another religion, one that has worked hard to pave the bumpy road in the valley between Jesus’s love of the poor and the American love of money. Mormonism, the fourth largest church in the country, is also the religion of American exceptionalism, the idea (or feeling) of preordained superiority that constitutes the Tea Party’s principle underlying tenet. Church founder and charismatic leader Joseph Smith was the most extraordinary promoter of American exceptionalism who ever lived: he believed that Adam and Eve were born in Jackson County, Missouri.
Exceptionalism aside, Mormonism is a strange faith for a fully-grown person to choose. Mainstream journalists try to sound even-handed when describing the church’s beliefs and its history, as in the case of a recent Newsweek cover story that acknowledges the “quirkier aspects of the sect’s history and practices (special underpants, magic spectacles),” but quickly adds that “the accouterments of any religion can seem wacky when scrutinized in the public square.”
True, but is that all there is to say? No powerful institution comes into being without some mayhem, but “quirky” and “wacky” do not suffice. Birthed by the sheer chutzpah of its original prophet Joseph Smith, the church cemented its authority and saw massive growth under Brigham Young, who took over in 1847. In 1856, hundreds of Saints starved and froze to death on their way from the Midwest to Utah because Young was economizing on oxen, leaving the migrants to act as their own pack animals. The next year saw the Mountain Meadow massacre, where, in a fantastic act of savagery, Mormons slaughtered 120 wealthy Arkansas emigrants — men, women and children — and blamed the Paiute Indians. Through the nineteenth century (and still today in some fringe sects) 12- and 13-year-old girls were “married” or “sealed” to men 40 years their senior, following the example of leaders Smith and Young. Today’s squeaky-clean, no-caffeine-drinking, family-loving Mormon seems at least partly compensational for this dark history. Unlike most other religions, where first-person historical evidence has long ago been swallowed by scriptural translation and interpretation, Mormons have the hand-written documents of their original prophets; they have, to their minds, the original word of God, a God who found white skin delightsome and dark skin, not so much. All of this is just to say that to seek out Mormonism as an adult is to exhibit a willingness to pick faith, or to privilege credulity, over the hardest of historical realities. (As they sing in the new musical, Book of Mormon: “I am a Mormon/ And a Mormon just – believes.”)
Beck’s conversion brought him some new role models, not least of whom was the near forgotten Willard Cleon Skousen (1913-2006), a Mormon John-Bircher who believed that Dwight D. Eisenhower was a Communist agent and that the U.S. Constitution was rooted not in the European Enlightenment but in the New Testament. Skousen (whose book on end-times prophecy, The Cleansing of America, was published posthumously by Valor Publishing Group in 2010) was a pioneer of the current vogue for calling any form of social obligation “socialism.” He linked any policy or institution that worked to benefit his fellow man to a nefarious plot whose roots he traced to the establishment of those twin evils, the Federal Reserve and the graduated income tax, both ratified under President Woodrow Wilson – hence Beck’s otherwise puzzling obsession with the villain Wilson. It was Skousen’s wildly fictionalized, faux-academic worldview that gave form to the bespectacled Beck we see today, spinning conspiracies in front of his beloved blackboard, drawing chalk arrows between Hugo Chavez and Barack Obama.
I was in college when it happened. I remember standing in line to rent a camera for a film course, head down, eyes glued to the New York Times account of the carnage in Jonestown. It was the first time I had seen the name Jim Jones. From then on, I tried to learn everything I could about Jones, about the turn in the road that led him, a man who worked hard to found a racially integrated church in the Midwest in the 1950s based on notions of social responsibility, to become a sex-and-drug-crazed tyrant, a man whose only path to glory was to go down in flames and take his entire flock with him. Jones first isolated his followers by moving them from Indianapolis to Ukiah, California. Then, to escape the problems he’d created there, he relocated the nearly thousand-member group to the jungle of Guyana, where he could exert complete authority. Preparing for the mass suicide, in which 918 people died, Jones made a final speech to his followers from an outdoor stage while, just yards away, nurses mixed potassium cyanide and liquid valium into giant vats of Grape Flavor Aid. As parents began injecting this concoction into the mouths of their children, Jones assured his flock that their enemies were at that very moment en route to Jonestown, poised to parachute from the sky and shoot their babies. He assured them that death would not be painful, though they could plainly see evidence to the contrary as they went on about their grim task. They had believed him all along; they could not stop now.
Beck was still polishing his act in his early days at Fox; does anyone remember when he simulcast a close-up of his own eyes in real time as he sermonized? Immediately, Stephen Colbert was on the story, pretend-praising Beck, saying, “Glenn has climbed into his genius cannon and lit the fuse.” He pegged Beck as a personage whose eyes offered “a wormhole to another world,” and it wasn’t long before Jon Stewart and the South Park boys were feeding on Beck’s performances; it was fertile ground. This kind of attention of course brought out Beck’s petulance, which is never far from the surface. Unlike Bill O’Reilly or Rush Limbaugh, or, as far as anyone can tell, Michele Bachmann, Beck fancies himself a comedian. He tours the country with his one-man stand-up show, Glenn Beck Live. “Don’t let the suit and tie fool you,” says his website. “Glenn Beck is one of the most unique and refreshing comic thinkers of his time.” It has to hurt when the pros call you a moron.
Despite the disdain of the “media elites,” Beck scored high ratings from his pulpit and a heady touchdown in his first year: his relentless attacks on Obama’s special advisor for green jobs, Van Jones, culminated in Jones’s resignation in September 2009. At his peak, Beck reached an audience of almost three million viewers. He saw his face on the cover of Time (Forbes and theNew York Times magazine came the following year), along with stories that tipped their hats to Fox’s biggest star and offered only a timid modicum of criticism. According to Forbes, he earned $35 million between June 2009 and June 2010. Beck was in the big tent, and he was loving it.
All organisms evolve, and Beck started to choose targets of larger stature. In November, 2009, Beck aired a three-part “series” attacking George Soros, the billionaire who had, as a teenager, survived the Nazi occupation in his native Hungary by posing as the Christian godson of an agriculture minister, a man whose wife was Jewish and who Soros’s father helped find a hiding place in the country. One day Soros accompanied his pretend godfather on a mission to inventory the belongings of a Jewish family who had fled the country. Using his characteristic cocktail of one part truth to ten parts disinformation (and a few parts disavowal of responsibility), Beck characterized Soros this way:
He used to go around with this anti-Semite and deliver papers to the Jews and confiscate their property and then ship them off. And George Soros was part of it. He would help confiscate the stuff. It was frightening. Here’s a Jewish boy helping send the Jews to the death camps. And I am certainly not saying that George Soros enjoyed that, even had a choice. I mean, he’s 14 years old. He was surviving. So I’m not making a judgment. That’s between him and God. […] George Soros is – many people would call him an anti-Semite. I will not. I don’t know enough about all of his positions on Jews.
Beck identified Soros as the “puppet master” and “chief architect” of a New World Government, a familiar trope for devotees of right-wing conspiracy plots. The Anti-Defamation League and others cried foul, but their cries went unheard by the people who listen to Beck.
The only journalist who did any extensive, hard digging on Beck was Salon‘s Alexander Zaitchik, who discovered one of the first (and perhaps most crucial) keys to the radio host’s pattern of dissembling. Beck had said, on air, that his mother Mary committed suicide when he was 13. This was the first time that Beck’s then wife of almost ten years had heard of a suicide. Zaitchik found that Mary died, along with her sailing partner, in a boating accident on the Puget Sound in May, 1979, which would have put Beck at 15. The police record and the coroner called both deaths accidental; they surmised it was a classic case of one person falling overboard and the other attempting a rescue. On board they found an empty bottle of vodka. When the New York Times profiled Beck in 2010, he explained that he knew it was a suicide because Mary’s boating partner had specifically told him never to jump in the water when your sailing mate goes overboard but to throw a life jacket instead. Beck claimed, in another account, that Mary left a short suicide note, leaving us to wonder: if she left a note, why the tortured explanation about life jackets? And, always, there’s that nagging empty bottle of vodka.
The year was 1988, and it was one of my first big assignments for the Wall Street Journal. My editor, Ray Sokolov, noticed that a lot of powerful and famous people were lending their clout to Philip Morris Magazine, a monthly publication that was still running stories about how great and patriotic it was to smoke, along with sidebars that profiled happy, healthy people who had enjoyed unfiltered cigarettes their whole lives and weren’t about to stop now that they were 80, or 90, or even 100. The magazine paid well and hired writers of note, and its covers had been graced by the likes of Mickey Mantle and Walter Cronkite. My assignment was to phone some of the magazine’s well-known contributors and ask why they lent their names to such a publication. The responses were a wonderful compendium of rationalizations: I make every nickel I can but I cannot be bought (Willard Scott); there’s so much anti-smoking coverage in the media today that this is a little spit in the ocean (Sidney Zion); we wish we could take it back (Jane and Michael Stern). The only writer who seemed to be clear-eyed about his own moral relativity was the great baseball writer Thomas Boswell: “Once you stop writing for the Boston Phoenix and enter the real world, you have to ask yourself, ‘Am I dirty to the ankles or the knees?’ The fingers of the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal have been in some pretty dirty places.”
I took this to mean that if I wanted to be a reporter of any worth I would need to enlarge the picture and the scope of my inquiry and tone down my judgment. And, now, if I am going to be as honest as Thomas Boswell suggested I should be, I have to admit that watching Glenn Beck gives me a kind of a charge, and that I have, in my small way, participated in his success. I watch him, I read about him, I talk about him, I write about him. I know I can learn more valuable lessons from the actions of Mother Teresa or the Buddha, but they are not going to be as much fun. Whatever self-righteous indignation I might use to explain my interest in him, my personal course of study at Glenn Beck University profits me not much more than playing Internet hearts.
My obsession with charisma, credulity, and self-rationalization undoubtedly have something to do with being born and raised in an all-Jewish community, just a scant decade and a half after the end of WWII. Every Sunday we were sent to Hebrew school, where our education was as much about the Holocaust as it was about the Torah and preparing for Bat Mitzvah. We watched those black-and-white films of Auschwitz until they seeped into our dreams, where they stayed, as they were meant to, for the rest of our days. We were trained to be on the lookout for false prophets and charismatic leaders (unless they were Jewish); we were on the lookout for conspiracies against us.
And so, in my search for the real Glenn Beck, I’m just doing what I was taught: keeping an eye on both the leader and his fans. I am endlessly fascinated by why people decide to believe what they believe, and by the methods used to convince them to do so. Why would a person accept that God told Joseph Smith he deserved extra wives, or that Jim Jones was going to found paradise in Guyana, or that Glenn Beck understands more about the world than anyone else in the media, anyone else at all? I watch him as he tries to listen to the guests on his show: his eyes glaze over within seconds, he can barely let them finish a sentence. Is it disdain he feels at such times, or is he, like his audience, more interested in the sound of his own voice than anyone else’s statement of the facts?
I’m not equating him with Hitler, mind you, or Joe Smith or Jim Jones. I’m just trying to understand my own compulsion.
Beck has published nine books since 2008, only two of which have been packaged as fiction. As a long-time critic, I feel I know a thing or two about dramatic narrative, that I know how to assess the motivations undergirding an authorial voice. I turned to his two novels for clues to what is going on inside that thickset head. Perhaps the novels will reveal the man, I thought, as they do Proust or James. Perhaps through the same alchemy by which real people — Soros, Obama, Wilson — become characters in made-up plots on Beck’s TV show, the novels will uncover something real, something authentic about Glenn Beck.
The Christmas Sweater was brought out in 2008 by Threshold Editions, a subsidiary of Simon & Schuster that specializes in conservative nonfiction (Mary Matalin is its editor in chief). To date the hardcover has sold about 700,000 copies, according to Nielsen Bookscan. For this, his first novel, Beck’s model seems to be yet another Mormon, Richard Paul Evans, who in 1993 self-published a piece of treacle called The Christmas Box, a book that somehow caught the attention of thousands of grannies all over the country, causing Simon & Schuster to release it in hardcover in 1995. A TV movie followed.
It cannot have escaped Beck’s notice that The Christmas Box brought success and a certain kind of fame to Evans, who went on to write two dozen more books. Beck’s book, like Evans’s, features a protagonist who is oblivious to the true meaning of Christmas until, with the help of an angel or mysterious stranger, he learns what it is all about.
Obviously, a sweater plays an important role. In the preface, Beck says he owns the titular garment, and that, whenever he moves, he gently folds it up and takes it with him, “carefully placing it on another shelf, never to be worn.” He claims that once he started the book, the sweater took over, “almost as if my sweater wanted its story told,” and indeed the book reads like it might have been written by a sweater. As in The Christmas Box, chapters begin with a giant capital letter in an elaborate gothic font and a sentence like: “It’s funny how life changes so fast” and “The smell of Mom’s pancakes was so wonderfully strong that it actually woke me up.” The story starts out with a little narrative drive, but it quickly runs out of gas and sits lifeless, repeating and repeating its lessons over and over. Any real drama, such as a car accident, is passed over as quickly as possible. Instead, his characters talk and talk, and they spell out their concerns and issues in metronomic rhythm, until suddenly, for no particular reason, the protagonist finally “gets it” and the story is finished.
There is perhaps no better — or fairer — way to convey the quality of The Christmas Sweater than a simple synopsis. Eddie, the protagonist and narrator, is the scion of a poor but loving baker and his wife. They live in a small town called Mount Vernon (as did Beck’s family). Mom is background noise, a wounded drip, especially after dad dies from cancer. Also present are his mother’s parents, Grandma (a Lawrence-Welk-loving drag, like her daughter), and Grandpa Edward, for whom Eddie is named. Grandpa is an impish devil who lives to pull tricks on people. For instance, he teaches little Eddie how to advance-open all of the Christmas presents and then re-wrap them so no one can detect their espionage. Grandpa is “a big fan of finding the grey area between the letter of Grandma’s law and the spirit of it.” In fact, “the problem was that Grandpa was so good at mixing fact with fiction that almost no one, including him, was really sure what was true anymore.” No need to pause here.
Two years after his dad dies, Eddie’s mom is working endless hours at a seeming endless series of jobs. Still, Eddie is feeling peeved because he hasn’t gotten a single “brag-worthy present” since his dad died. This year he has his hopes pinned on a red Huffy bike with a black banana seat. Instead he gets a crappy Christmas sweater, hand knit by his mom. He can’t contain his disappointment. He marches upstairs to his room and throws the sweater in the corner, where, apparently, it rolls up like a ball. When his mom enters and sees it, she looks pained. “I really didn’t know how much my mother believed in the magic of Christmas until I saw it die for her in a rumpled ball on my bedroom floor,” says Eddie.
Now that Eddie has killed the magic of Christmas, it is time for him and his mom to drive an hour and a half to the old farmhouse where his grandparents live. Eddie continues to sulk all day, so much so that his grandfather (who by now has parted ways with his one trait, mischievousness) sends Eddie and his exhausted mom back home that same Christmas night. On the way home, mom falls asleep at the wheel. She crashes the car. She dies. Eddie is OK.
Eddie goes to live with his grandparents and becomes a sullen, horrid pre-teen. One day Eddie is walking past what looks like an abandoned farm. He is approached by “a well-worn man” whose face is caked with dirt. The man tells Eddie, “All is well, son, all is well.” Grief explodes within Eddie for the first time. The boy cries and cries. The man says, “We will meet again, Eddie.” Twenty pages later, they do. The man introduces himself as Russell. Just Russell. “He had all the dirt of every farm on earth on him — yet he felt clean, peaceful,” says the narrator. Clearly this Russell is special in some mysterious way.
Despite the visitation, Eddie remains sullen. After the umpteenth same fight with his grandparents, he runs away on his Huffy (Grandpa, having hidden it in the barn, produces it later – don’t ask). As he pedals off furiously, Eddie’s front tire hits a rut and throws him onto a dirt road, where he hears a voice say, “Come home, Eddie, just come home.” This causes him to run into the cornfield, where he is made “half blind from covering my eyes from the stinging, whipping cornstalks.” Eddie stops running and collapses to his knees. To the pre-dawn sky, he says, “I hate you.” “I love you,” a voice whispers back. Eddie begins to hear a lot of voices telling him different things. A sudden storm moves in. For some reason he can’t move. “In front of me was a path to a storm that promised nothing but death. Behind me was a wall of shadow and regret. So there I stood, afraid to go forward… And unable to go back.”
Just then he hears someone say, “Hello, Eddie.” It’s Russell! His gaze is strong and infinitely loving. Eddie closes his eyes and takes a step into the very center of the storm. The shriek of its winds fills his ears. This is the point in the story where his sweater might have been some real use for Eddie, perhaps even as the key to an epiphany. But Eddie doesn’t have it with him. It’s rumpled in a ball in metaphor’s closet. Instead, Russell takes his hand. And then… Eddie is on the other side of the storm. Golden rays of sun reflect off the menacing black clouds. Now all is Technicolor corn, grass and sky. He wonders: is this heaven? Hearing Eddie’s thoughts, Russell answers, “You’re on the other side of the storm. This is what awaits you. Not after you die, but once you start to really live.” Russell is no longer dirty and old but bright and ageless. Naturally, Eddie wants to know who he is, a question that just makes Russell smile and say, “The real question is who are you?’ Now Eddie finally understands. “Without the storm, I couldn’t know myself.”
Eddie is once again awakened by the smell of pancakes. He is in bed at his grandparent’s house, and his mother is still alive! It was all a dream! She’s making him those pancakes! He runs to her, crying, “Oh, mom. You’re the best mother in the world. And I love my sweater more than you could ever know.”
In an afterword, as in the foreword, Beck reassures us of his story’s authenticity, helpfully summarizing the plot, and pointing out his own spirit of generosity in writing it: “In the final pages Eddie is given a second chance,” he explains. “That, my friend, is a gift to me and from me to you.” Beck then reveals that the character of the grandfather is based on his own grandpa, Edward Lee Janssen. “While the middle name on my birth certificate reads just ‘Lee,'” writes Beck, “I’ve always insisted on using ‘Edward Lee’ through my life. In fact, all of my friends, and even my children, believe that ‘Glenn Edward Lee Beck’ is my legal name.” It’s a nice tribute. Grandpa was also someone who might have lied to his family about something important for no apparent reason.
Beck’s second work of fiction, The Overton Window, is optimistically subtitled A Thriller. On this one he had a little help: the title page reads, “with contributions from Kevin Balfe, Emily Bestler, and Jack Henderson.” In one of the few reviews that appeared in the lamestream media, the Washington Post‘s Chris Kelly pointed out that the plot of Window is similar to a self-published novel called Circumference of Darkness by one Jack Henderson (see previous sentence). In any event, Window‘s crew of authors has assembled not one but two overlapping plots, one of which even has a subplot. And yet they have not lost Beck’s signature style: inert action sequences interrupted by long passages in which the characters preach acres and acres of nonsense.
In this story, Beck’s young protagonist has been promoted from the son of a poor baker to the only child of the most powerful man on earth: Arthur Isaiah Gardner, the head of Doyle & Merchant. D&M isn’t just any top-flight PR firm; it is the company whose sheer genius forced us to listen to boy bands, to suffer from restless leg syndrome, and to start the Gulf War. (D&M can also get unwanted stories spiked from The Washington Post.) Our hero is Arthur’s son, Noah Gardner, who falls in love with Molly Ross, a pretty young woman who is the guiding spirit of Founders’ Keepers. In order to learn more about her, Noah takes a cab to an FK meeting, strangely enough in Tribeca. The diversity of the group surprises Noah; “it was a total cross section” of ages and subcultures and races, all singing along to a “1960s era grassroots folk song.” With his sharp PR radar, Noah immediately recognizes those in the crowd who are infiltrators, who are just there to cause trouble and wear anti-Semitic tee shirts and make Founders’ Keepers look bad. But the Founders’ Keepers themselves are good and peace-loving. Molly’s mother takes the stage and lays out their beliefs in eight pages of virtually uninterrupted dialogue, being sure to add, near the end, that everyone should follow Dr. King and no one should incite violence.
The next speaker, however, incites the crowd to violence. But it may just be agitators sent from the government who get violent; I’m not sure. In any event, Noah eventually learns of the government’s plot to use Founders’ Keepers as an excuse to start a war and enslave its own populace with a socialist, one- world government, at which point those FEMA concentration camps will finally come in handy. And the leader of this plot? It’s Noah’s father, which is supposed to come as a surprise to Noah (and to us) even though his father has laid the whole thing out in chapter 3. Yes, confusing. As is the fact that peace-loving Molly, it turns out, is a quick-draw expert and extremely well versed in homemade bomb making.
In the course of the narrative Beck manages to interject the names from the story he’s been spinning on his Fox show: Carroll Quigley, Herbert Croly, Saul Alinsky, Edward Bernays. These are the deep thinkers, the real-life Alfred Gardners, behind the PR that makes socialism possible. Beck’s use of actual historical figures helps keep the line between fact and fiction adequately blurred. In another afterword, he urges his readers to use these names to do their own research, to explore their own cornfields of truth.
Now that Fox no longer broadcasts him, Beck will be available only by subscription on his website. His program, of course, has never been enough of a forum to contain the magnitude of his thoughts; he tours his one-man show and maintains an online college, Beck University (“learn history as it really happened”), which he started despite having dropped the single college course he ever attempted, “Early Christology” at Yale. He has also started an online magazine, The Blaze, because, he says, “If you are like me, watching the news or reading the paper can be an exercise in exasperation.” It’s always hard to know how much and what kind of attention to pay to someone who lives for attention. Jon Stewart chose imitation over commentary; his “Beck” is more pointed than Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin, but not that much more. Beck is so parody-ready that sometimes it is enough just to repeat what he says. Last year, for example, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank published Tears of a Clown: Glenn Beck and the Tea Bagging of America, which is essentially just a compendium of outrageous things Beck has said and done.
Partly I am drawn to my Beck-watch because the man spends so much time distancing himself from his own words. His “recovering dirtbag” line, for instance, absolves him from all his pre-AA stunts. His more current excuse is that he is not a journalist but a dad “doing this for my kids.” “I’m trying to figure it out as I go,” he says. But he wants you to know how he suffers. From his sickbed, Beck filed a self-filmed video report on a hemorrhoid operation that went “awry.” By his account, Beck is both a borderline schizophrenic and riddled with ADD. More recently, he tells us he has been “officially diagnosed as having small fiber neuropathy” as well as macular dystrophy. With a brave smile, he says, “The doctor told me I could be blind within a year.”
And so this week I watched my possibly-soon-to-be-blind prophet intuit, once again, the arrival of an imminent storm, a future filled with riots in streets all around the world. Many times he has warned, “Violence is coming.” But what is the disaster he fears? Maybe it’s not his impending blindness, or the horrors of Armageddon, but simply the loss, finally, of his own audience: the one he built up for Magicland and left driving in circles around the Beltway. They never found Magicland, of course, because it wasn’t there. Glenn Beck made it up.
Every day this week, Beck has implored viewers to follow him to Glennbeck.com. “It’s imperative,” he says, “that we find each other again.” And now, as all Beck watchers must, I contemplate the threshold of my interest, and whether it will stand the test of $4.95 a month. My answer is already plain to me. I knew it when I heard Beck announce the location of his first post-Fox remote broadcast: No, not Disneyland, and not Magicland, but another kind of nihilistic wonder: Auschwitz. He’s going there to figure out, he says, “how this happened.” All of a sudden I grow weary. I believe I have finally reached the barbed-wire border of my own curiosity. If his breakdown happens, I will not see it. The mouse, if you want it, is in your house now.