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Is Glenn Beck the Orson Welles of Our Time?

Understanding FOX News' biggest star.
 
 
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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 Centralsatires, 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.

Mercury Radio Arts is Beck's production company. It is his pride, his joy, and his multiteat cash cow. The company, whose tag line is "The fusion of entertainment and enlightenment," produces or co-produces his radio and television shows, his live events and his many publishing and digital media projects, all of which promote and expand the Beck brand.

Its full-time staff of 20 is not based in the small-town "Real America" Beck claims to hold so dear, but in the cynical media capital of the world, Manhattan.

Beck founded Mercury Radio Arts in 2002, the year his talk radio show went national. The name is a respectful nod to the Mercury Radio Theater, the New York drama company founded by Orson Welles, most famous for producing a 1938 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds.

Beck's nod to Welles is a revealing one. Like Beck, Welles made his national name scaring the pants off of gullible Americans with a scripted, emotional act. (Unlike Beck, Welles was a staunch leftist and did not incorporate politics into his radio work.) Beck shares Welles' love of dramatic radio and is very proud of the fact that he directed and acted in the first live commercial radio drama in 40 years for XM Radio. Everything Beck does should be seen in this light.

Beck's self-image as an entertainer is rivaled only by his self-image as a businessman. He admits as much in his 2003 book, The Real America, which alternates between shlocky by-the-numbers conservative homily and frank autobiography.

Beck writes that while he admires Welles for dreaming big and revolutionizing radio, he is disappointed that he died poor. Beck finds more to admire in two of Hollywood's most flaming Democrats, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. After sketching the business architecture of Damon and Affleck's Project Greenlight, Beck writes in near-awe:

That's four distinct forms of entertainment, four ways to reach their audience, four products that act as marketing and publicity for each other and four sources of revenue. … This is what Mercury Radio Arts aspires to be … We want to start with the Glenn Beck Program and find ways to … maximiz[e] its ratings and revenue.

If Beck could have built up Radio Mercury Arts on the back of Howard Stern-style shock-jock persona, he would have done it. In fact, that's basically what he tried to do during his "lost" decade spent railing fat cocaine caterpillars off the asses of small-town strippers. And for a while it looked like he was destined for Stern-like stardom. But despite a quick and promising start in radio -- Beck was making six-figures and riding limos in his early 20s -- he bottomed out in 1994 working a tiny market in suburban Connecticut.

He flirted with killing himself, but cleaned up instead and found a new ambition, just as Georgia Rep. Newt Gingrich's Republicans stormed Congress and Clinton-era right-wing radio took off, led by Rush Limbaugh. Beck's official biography is spotty on the mid- to late-'90s, but he appears to have spent these years plotting his conservative talk radio makeover.

Beck finally got his big break in 1999. That was the year Clear Channel bought Tampa's WFLA, home to the popular liberal talk legend Bob Lassiter. Lassiter was squeezed out within a year of the sale and replaced by Beck, who jerked Tampa talk radio to the right. He is remembered by locals during this time for his skits depicting Satan writing love poems to Hillary Rodham Clinton, and for dangerously stoking anti-Democrat sentiment in Florida during the tense 2000 election recount.

His new masters were pleased. Just weeks after the 9/11 attacks, 18 months after he took his first caller, Beck signed a national contract with Premiere Radio Networks, a Clear Channel subsidiary. Beck claims that before 9/11, he was "a big fat, lazy sloth who just wanted to sit on my couch eating Ho Hos and Doritos." But that's unlikely. Beck must have been studying conservative talk radio during the late '90s. That, and honing his vision for Mercury Radio Arts, which he launched quickly after the money started flowing again in 2002.

Beck wasted no time positioning himself on the crest of the wave of post-9/11 super patriotism. In March 2003, Beck used his show to organize a series of "Rallies for America," which he attended in stretch limos.

At the time of the rallies, Paul Krugman and others accused Beck of doing the bidding of Clear Channel, which had connections to the Bush administration. But Beck doesn't need anyone to tell him to tour the country and jump on a bunch of stages if it can raise his profile and allow him to out-patriot his competitors.

The "Rallies for America" were the precursor for Beck's newest self-promotional patriotic initiative, the "9/12 Project," which is an attempt to literally stamp his brand on the very memory of 9/11. If this seems shameless, it is. It also makes perfect business sense if you're Glenn Beck.

The post-9/11 period is exactly concurrent with his meteoric and lucrative career on the national stage. He arguably does not exist as a megastar without the attacks on New York and Washington, the wars that followed and their warping effect on the nation's politics and economy. Without 9/11, Beck's newest Premiere contract would almost certainly not be worth $50 million.

Beck likes to brag about this new contract and to talk about money in general. Six sentences into his memoir, The Real America, and he is already mentioning that Stern and Limbaugh still make more money than he does. In a stage monologue about his conversion to Mormonism, recorded shortly after he negotiated his latest contract with Premiere, he tells a middle-class audience that, by the way, he just made $50 million. 

Of course, strong and even ruthless capitalist instincts are no mark of shame on the right. Beck views the pursuit of wealth as the duty of every "Real American" -- and Christian. His conservative fans no doubt agree with him. But Beck is not a lifelong conservative who happened to make a lot of money in the capitalist system he loves. For most of his adult life, he was, in his own words, "a bitter, hopeless [drug-using] alcoholic who hated people." He long ago started putting money before country, and there's every reason to believe that he still does. His metamorphosis into a right-wing values-crusader matches up neatly with the birth of his Wellesian/Limbaughsian dreams of national talk radio fame and entertainment empire.

He understood 15 years ago that the way to own a sprawling mansion estate in New Canaan, Conn., is to rant about the sprawling Malibu estates of Hollywood liberals. His on-air persona is a product of his own reinvention, even if he calls it "redemption."

Beck's obsession with getting as rich as possible also runs through his Mormon Christianity, which he adopted in 1999, which incidentally is the same year he got married and launched his talk radio career. In The Real America, Beck briefly describes his semester studying religion at Yale at age 30. (His enrollment was made possible by a letter of recommendation written by Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn.). Here's Beck, theologian:

It's interesting to me that Jesus said, 'Inside my Father's house there are many mansions … ' That means that wealth and riches are not bad things … God believes you deserve a mansion. Do You? … There is a universe full of money. There are riches beyond your wildest dreams. God doesn't give you a taste of ice cream unless he's willing for you to have the entire cone.

Beck's pursuit of "the entire cone" goes far toward explaining his apocalyptic politics. Beck is the nation's best-known and most mainstream peddler of End Times fears and apocalyptic scenarios (excluding climate change). This obsession is epitomized in a segment on his show called "The War Room," in which panelists discuss various nightmare scenarios and how to prepare for them.

For Beck, the End Times shtick is literally pure gold. The precious metals dealer Goldline, whose fortunes rise on anxieties of social and economic collapse, has hired Beck as a spokesman and is one of his biggest sponsors. His Web site is also sponsored by Newsmax (another right-wing media fearmonger whose ad offers a "free emergency radio … [for when] terrorists attack.") and a company called Survival Seeds, which warns of imminent food riots. It fits that Beck's corporate logo resembles nothing so much as a radiation symbol.

Nothing is sacred in Beck's business strategy to grow his company by stoking right-wing anger, anxiety and paranoia. This is true even of those things he wants us to believe he holds most sacred. The poster for his upcoming comedy tour is the same Revolutionary War-era severed-snake symbol that Beck chose as the logo for his dead-serious "9/12 Project." He just swapped the words "Laugh or Die" for the original "Join, Or Die," then stamped it with his corporate logo.

This fluid, self-serving and multiplatform use of a hallowed symbol -- from teary-eyed professions of selfless "9/12" patriotism to the promotion of his crappy observational comedy -- is classic Beck.

So make fun of him all you want, but Glenn Beck is not crazy. He is a very wealthy and possibly visionary fraud, the Bernie Madoff of conservative anger and fear in the Obama era. He is laughing and crying right along with you, in the plush backseat of his stretch limo, all the way to the bank.

Alexander Zaitchik is a Brooklyn-based freelance journalist and AlterNet contributing writer.
 
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