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Is Glenn Beck the Orson Welles of Our Time?

Understanding FOX News' biggest star.

Fox News host Glenn Beck has done all the necessary spadework to position himself at the center of a brewing and increasingly paranoid right-wing insurgency.

From challenging Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison to prove he isn't working with Al-Qaida, to taking tearful stands against Barack Obama's Democratic Reich, the self-described "rodeo clown" is pushing his televised tirades and skits closer to the angrier, more unhinged fare of his daily talk radio show, now ranked third nationally, where he has been honing his confessional Molotov-throwing shtick for a decade.

Beck is deft at making himself an elusive and slippery target. As media watchdogs and satirists step up their attacks, the host has countered with well-practiced public relations aikido. He has embraced comparisons between himself and Network's Howard Beale, who rode an on-air crack-up to record ratings. On his shows and in print, he has claimed at turns to be "crazy," "borderline schizophrenic," and "just a clown."

But is he really? After all of the Comedy Central satires, the studious cataloging of falsehoods and outrages, and the public back-and-forth about his mental state, the big questions about Beck -- Who the hell is this guy? And is he for real? -- remain largely unanswered and even unasked in any serious way.

Fortunately, Beck has gone far toward answering these questions himself. Between his thousands of hours of TV and radio recordings, his semiannual stage tours, and a surprisingly frank memoir, he has provided enough information to piece together the puzzle of the "real" Glenn Beck.

The first casualty of any study of Beck is the idea that he is cracking up, a la Beale. Mental illness runs in Beck's family -- his mother and brother suffered from depression and committed suicide, and he considered suicide in the mid-'90s -- but Beck is not crazy. His frequent choke-ups are no more the early signs of a looming crack-up than his best-selling-author status portends a National Book Award.

Beck has been fake crying for years. It started on his radio show in Tampa, Fla., where he first turned the confessional mode of the support-circle into fodder for self-denigrating humor and ratings gold. After 10 years, the fake crying is best seen as a corporate brand handle. It differentiates him from tough-guy competitors in a conservative media universe dominated by manly men and manlier women. Even Beck himself is becoming increasingly open about this. The plug for his upcoming "Common Sense" comedy tour describes him as "America's favorite hysterical, fear-mongering, TV and radio crybaby."

Those who take a single drop of Beck's tears seriously need simply watch recordings of his stage shows. As he paces the stage, Beck switches the tear-ducts on and off like a switch, sometimes as many as six times in a single hour. He even chokes himself up for slick, produced segments like the trailer for the stage show based on his best-selling (and ghostwritten) Christmas novel, The Christmas Sweater .

Then there is the memorable Freudian slip Beck dropped on Fox in early February, while recounting the story of a missing girl. "Two years ago, I made the father a promise," Beck says, choking up, "that I would not let this story dry -- er, die …"

Any doubts that Beck is just acting are more deeply buried by examining his turn guest hosting Larry King Live last summer. Watch that clip, and you will see a master tailor of on-air persona at work. He is in full control and almost unrecognizable. 

To understand Beck, you just need to fade out the apocalyptic hysterics and pull back the Patton-size flag. Do that, and staring back at you are three words: Mercury Radio Arts. Therein lies everything you need to know about Fox's new megastar.

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