How Glenn Beck Re-Invented Himself as a Crying Conservative
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The following is an adapted excerpt from Alexander Zaitchik's book, Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance, due out this month on Wiley & Sons.
Every July 4, Glenn Beck emcees the Stadium of Fire celebration in Provo, Utah. The patriotic extravaganza is the most elaborate Independence Day celebration in the country, drawing more than fifty thousand people annually to Brigham Young University’s LaVell Edwards Stadium for a program of family music, star-spangled speeches, military displays, and a magnificent array of fireworks. Sponsored by the conservative Mormon group Freedom Festival, the Stadium of Fire is the closest thing in the country to an institutionalized Rally for America, Beck’s controversial 2003 traveling pro-war roadshow. It is not surprising, then, that this is among the high points of Beck’s calendar year. “There’s nothing like Utah on the Fourth of July,” he likes to say.
The Jonas Brothers were the biggest commercial act on the 2009 Stadium of Fire program, but the chaste Disney boy band didn’t headline. That honor went to an enormous American flag, 155 feet by 90 feet, which was ritually burned during the show’s climax. It was Beck’s job as emcee to narrate the rite as it was carried out according to an elaborate official protocol. When a cauldronlike container at the center of the field was set afire, an emotional Beck declared, “If our American flag could speak, oh, the stories she would tell.”
With those words, the Stadium of Fire became a Coliseum of Crying. “Many people teared up,” reported the Deseret News, “including event emcee Glenn Beck, who emphasized to the audience what a special ceremony they were witnessing.”
Except that it wasn’t. A few days later, Provo’s fire chief admitted that the nylon flag had not, in fact, been burned, as the crowd was led to believe. Because of safety concerns, a less volatile material had been quietly substituted for the flag in the giant cauldron. Like the emcee’s famous tears, Provo’s patriotic inferno was not what it seemed.
If people know one thing about Glenn Beck, it is that he cries. He is the Crying Conservative. Alone among cable news and talk-radio personalities, he frequently chokes up, his lips quiver, he wipes his eye, and he holds tortured misty pauses until he can hold them no more. For more than a decade, Beck has been crying on the radio, on television, on stage, in interviews, and even in scripted commercials. Sometimes the tears are implied; at other times, such as during a 2009 stage performance, he gets into a fetal position on the floor and bawls. But whatever the gradation, he owns the scale. It defines him like nothing else.
This is not an accident. As they were always intended to do, Beck’s tears have become a distinctive corporate-brand handle. They mark him clearly from everyone else in the broadcasting industry. When Beck began his career in conservative commentary, the field was thick with tough-guy know-it-alls—from the lace-curtain boor O’Reilly to the cigar-chomping blowhard Limbaugh.
But the cast of the late 1990s was incomplete. It contained no emotional Nancy, no repentant prodigal son, and no needy Twelve Stepper. Beck, a careful student of positional marketing theory since his days as a morning-zoo deejay in the 1980s and ’90s, identified and exploited the open niche. He began practicing the act during his transition from Top 40 to talk radio in the late 1990s. According to his Connecticut colleagues, he was known for being both genuinely emotional and able and willing to fake cry on cue.
“There were definitely times the crying was a tactic,” remembers Vinnie Penn, Beck’s former cohost in New Haven. “He’d be crying on-air. Then we’d go on commercial break and he’d phone in an order for a bacon-and-egg with cheese. Then we’d come back on-air and the tears would be back.” In Tampa, too, where he launched his talk radio career, he was known for turning on the waterworks for dramatic effect.
The role of Crying Conservative is well suited to Beck’s dramatic personality and emotional needs. But that alignment doesn’t make his execution of the character any less cynical. Sometimes Beck’s use of tears is so patently faked that it’s funny; at other times, it’s just nauseating. The best example of the latter is the time that Beck Freudian-slipped while choking up over the tragedy of someone else’s missing child. “Two years ago,” Beck said somberly one night early in his Fox News tenure, “I made the father a promise that I would not let this story dry—er, die …”
Beck’s tears are low-hanging fruit for parody, which no Beck hater can resist. It didn’t take long, however, to figure out that Beck was laughing the hardest of all, in the back seat of his limo. The trailers for Beck’s stage shows tout the star as “America’s favorite hysterical, fear-mongering, TV and radio crybaby.” The back cover of his best-selling book, Arguing with Idiots, shows the author pointing to a juicy tear on his right cheek, as if to say, “Make fun of me all you want, you fools. Please, don’t stop.”
Then there is the July 2009 GQ photo shoot in which Beck applied Tiger Balm to activate his famous tear ducts. It was from this shoot that the image for his September 2009 Time cover was drawn. Beck now uses the image as the screen saver on his office computers.
“It is not whether you really cry,” Ingrid Bergman once said. “It’s whether the audience thinks you are crying.” In Beck’s case, it’s not whether you really cry. It’s whether people are talking about whether you are really crying.
Making a joke of his tears, as he does, is not the same as copping to emotional dishonesty. Beck bristles whenever his tears are used not as joke material but as evidence of a larger, deeper fraudulence. Admitting that he is a charlatan is one bridge that Beck cannot afford to cross, even if his denials often serve to confirm the obvious. “I’m a crybaby. I’m such an easy target. I’m surprised SNL [ Saturday Night Live] hasn’t come after me,” Beck once told a reporter.
“If you’re going to make that case [that he’s faking it], I deserve a frickin’ Emmy,” he said in the same interview. “That’s unbelievable acting. Do you think that a grown man crying on the air is something I wouldn’t get hammered relentlessly for?”
As Beck knows very well, being hammered relentlessly has its uses. When SNL finally did come after Beck, he was thrilled. Heavy attacks by liberals only publicize and reinforce Beck’s faux vulnerability among the only people who matter to his business: conservatives who hate liberals.