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Glenn Beck’s path to power

Nick Anderson | Monday, March 1, 2010

President Obama’s meteoric rise to Commander in Chief of the United States was a unique moment in American politics. His calm demeanor, level-headed oration, willingness to compromise and intellectual heft were combined in a campaign promising change. In the 15 months since his election, change has proven elusive, bipartisanship scarce and progressivism negligible.

In a climate where only 25 percent of the voting population approves of the work being done by Congress, there will be a natural backlash against the party in power. The man leading the dissent is Fox News pundit Glenn Beck. He’s a near perfect foil for Obama; he’s emotional to the point of crying on national television, has less than a semester of college education and isn’t afraid to speak impulsively. For a politician, his trait set would be a death sentence, but as he has said himself, he’s an entertainer. More important than any other personal attribute, Beck is very smart.

By the age of 13, Beck already had a job as a radio DJ. Immediately following high school, he went to work in radio. He was a natural as a morning shock jock in the same vein as Howard Stern. He found success in Houston and Baltimore and also found a wife with whom he started a family. As his Web site, GlennBeck.com, says, “at the age of 30, Beck lost his passion for radio – and everything else.” Drinking and drug abuse took their toll, destroying his marriage and radio career, leaving him with a divorce and job in New Haven, Conn., a long way down from many of his earlier stations.

Having hit rock bottom, Beck began recovery. Alcoholics Anonymous helped him to quit both smoking marijuana and drinking and his second wife helped him find God through the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Beck started over as a talk radio host in Tampa, Fla. On the radio waves, Beck experienced the beginning of a dramatic climb, taking his station from 18th to first in the course of a year.

Soon afterwards, Beck’s show went national and led to a talk show on CNN. Beck’s libertarian-flavored conservative views managed to mesh well with CNN’s typically liberal viewers, giving him the second highest-rated show on the network. Beck jumped ship and left to Fox News in late 2008, where his show has enjoyed even greater ratings, soundly beating the combined ratings of competitors CNN, MSNBC and HLN combined.

Settled in at Fox News, Beck has quickly become one of the most despised men on cable. His tactics, whether motivated by ratings or principles, often leave much to be desired. He’s no stranger to slinging ludicrous accusations under the guise of “just asking questions” nor is he afraid to question Obama’s birth, religion, racism or love of country. These underhanded methods have brought personal attacks against Beck, a boycott of his show by advertisers and roughly three million viewers every night.

Beck comes off as a far right jester, pointing out the flaws of power but concerned with becoming a joke himself. While his detractors may wish for that fate, he’s become an increasingly powerful force with each passing scandal. Beck has been instrumental in the public exposure of ACORN and just recently played a large role in the resignation of Van Jones, Obama’s director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Beck’s attacks on Jones are particularly insightful. While his public and political motives centered on Jones’ involvement with STORM, a far-left political group, his underlying personal reasons concerned Jones’ suggested boycott of Beck’s program through Color of Change.

This mixture of political savvy with personal vendetta has become hallmark of Beck’s style.
For the past year, as Beck’s opponents grew, so did his following. In the infancy of his fame, Beck seemed destined to be a carbon copy of Rush Limbaugh, a classification Beck would no doubt take with a bit of pride. Instead, it seems Beck has a newfound appreciation of his power. Although he’s abrasive, partisan and flat out wrong at times, Beck may be taking his role quite seriously.

The first hint of this occurred early this year when Beck was asked to speak as headliner at the CPAC. Beck spoke directly to the disillusioned Republican and independent voter, candidly stating, “I don’t even know what they (Republicans) stand for anymore. And they’ve got to realize that they have a problem: ‘Hello, my name is the Republican Party, and I’ve got a problem. I’m addicted to spending and big government.”

It’s statements like these that have gained Beck both his audience and enemies, and statements like those from his CPAC speech may mark a dangerous step towards converting the former to the latter. Beck has also recently stepped off the party platform with respect to President Reagan (“I don’t think Reagan was a real Republican. He just maintained some shared values.”) and global warming (“You’d be an idiot not to notice the temperature change” and its origins with man).

This moment may end up being a watershed for Beck. It may be yet another dead end for the nomadic entertainer. More likely, this will transform Beck into a serious political player. He’s already proven his ability to grab and hold an audience, and now he may be proving he has something to say.

Nick Anderson can be reached at nanders5@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.