On the Mall With Brother Glenn
Glenn Beck's rally was about as angry as a Teletubbies episode.
"I am wracked with guilt," he said. "I am responsible for this. We all are. We let this happen to our country. I'm in Denver, so I'm represented by [Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette]. The guy running against her doesn't have a prayer. But I am spending my time walking precincts, knocking on doors for him, because I need to do something. My kids need to know that I did something."
Ten hours later, the people who didn't want to sleep on the mall are making their way to the rally. They swap stories of travel hell. They buy memorabilia and grab anything that's being passed out to them, like a flyer for college ministries ("Glenn is reaching the nation. Now let's reach the campus!") and an ad for a self-published comic called the "Obamasutra," which includes "1000 aphorisms and 180 caricatures." They pack onto the Mall, around the World War II memorial and on a side lawn with a massive screen. They mill about, listening in to the speeches when they can but just as often reading pamphlets or Kindles or talking to people in "Restoring Honor" T-shirts that they've just met.
They are hungry for any information they might have missed that might point them to some revelation. They've studied up on it, and Beck has done a lot of the teaching. "If you are a student of history, you will see a lot of the same things that created chaos and crippled countries in the past," says Lawrence Perkins, who sells three-wheeled traveling bikes called Trikkes along with his wife, Lisa. (Former President Jimmy Carter is a customer.) "Look at Germany after World War I, when they had such an immense debt that they printed too much money and the currency meant nothing. I'm afraid that if we keep paying for things we have no way of paying back, the currency means less and less."
This was Beck's audience. He didn't need to do any educating. The rally confirms what the crowd already knows about America: "America is good," says Beck, "not just because America is great, but because we are good! When we are good, we make America great!" He affirms this by reminding the crowd of the portraits of Samuel Adams, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin that "came to him" over the 2009 holidays, with the words faith, hope, and charity. * He bestows awards of merit in each category on a reverend, a baseball player, and a philanthropist, all of whom praise him as they accept the honor. When Sarah Palin is introduced, it's as a "military mom" who only makes a few obscure political references as she tells stories about brave war veterans.
The Democrats who pre-butted Beck's rally by predicting an overtly political hateananny were played for suckers. They didn't pay attention to Beck's "Founder Fridays" episodes on Fox, his high-selling speaking tour, or his schmaltzy children's book The Christmas Sweater. It's not his blackboard that makes him popular. It's the total package he sells: membership in a corny, righteous, Mormonism-approved-by-John Hagee cultural family. The anger is what the media focus on, he says, joking several times about what "the press" will do to twist his words.
"I believe God intended Barack Obama to be our president," says Laura Belcourt, who "works for Sheriff Joe" Arpaio in Phoenix's correctional system. "I mean, this isn't about him, but he's just helping us become aware of the problem with government, overall, period. We want politicians who are going to tell us the truth and say they're not going to keep entitlements around, because we know they're just taking our money and doling it back to us and that can't last forever."
Beck's rally ends just as he said it would—without incident, political or otherwise. He's just taken the world's most derided TV audience, put them in the National Mall, and presided over the world's largest megachurch. "Bring out the bagpipes," he says. Bagpipe players then walk onto his stage, and the sound of "Amazing Grace" fills the mall.
Click here to view a slide show of the Glenn Beck rally.
Correction, Aug. 30, 2010: This article originally referred to portraits of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin. The first in the series is Samuel Adams, not Jefferson. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.
Photograph of Glenn Beck by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Time Inc.