Tea Party and the Right

Glenn Beck Book Tour Makes Bizarre Visit to Heartland America

Photographer Nina Berman took photos of the economically depressed town where Beck staged his latest PR stunt.

Peddling a book called Broke in a city busted through and through, Glenn Beck rolled into Wilmington, Ohio last week to gleefully proclaim miracles. 

Styling himself as a real-life Santa Claus, Beck promised the city a celebrity stimulus surge. He would host live shows at a downtown theater, charging people $125 a ticket and $500 for breakfast meet-and-greet. Up to 20,000 people would come, and what was left in their pockets would be spent on Main Street, buying chocolate chip cookies, Tupperware and homemade handbags. 

Maybe it was the cold weather. Maybe Beck overestimates his appeal. The anticipated 20,000 topped off at about 3,000, according to police. And while there was a buzz on Main Street, particularly in the bookstore where Beck signed copies of Broke, what was startling about his visit to Wilmington, a city with nearly 16 percent unemployment, was how many people either didn’t know who he was (“Beck, you mean the guitarist?”), or didn’t care (“I’m not seeing his show, he’s just a man, not a God.").

Accompanied by an entourage of young male assistants, Beck was a charmer in person, doughy, approachable and eager to please, dressed in jeans and an upscale Loro Piana scarf. Most of the face time required a fee, either $500 for a photo with him at breakfast, a $125 ticket to one of his shows, or $30 for a book that came with a prayer if asked. He spoke at one free evening event on an outdoor stage and by that time, the local police were treating him more like a candidate than an entertainer, with barricades and no-go zones.

In Beck’s eyes,  the 12,000-strong Wilmington is a shining example of the righteousness of his own conservative narrative. He describes the town as a place too proud to accept federal stimulus or government handouts even after losing thousands of jobs when the DHL distribution hub closed in 2008. On his November 22 radio broadcast he said, "This town hasn’t taken any money from the government. They don’t want any money from the government."  During his visit he described Wilmington as ”going through liberating strife,” which sounds a little like Rumsfeld’s “freedom can be messy.”

The problem is that none of it is true. The non-partisan Politifact.comgave Beck’s depiction of Wilmington a “pants on fire” rating. In fact, Wilmington has received more than $13 million in a variety of federal funds since a Bush-era 2008 emergency job training allocation. The very theater where Beck performed just received a $250,000 federal grant to help renovate a heating system and leaky roof. The grant was secured by Republican Congressmen Mike Turner,  a frequent critic of federal handouts – he voted against the federal stimulus package -- and an author of HR 57, the “Preserving Capitalism in America Amendment,” which would give permanent constitutional protection to American free enterprise.   

Beck follows a path of media stars who have adopted Wilmington as the little town that could. Comedian Jay Leno gave a free performance there during his 2009  Comedy Stimulus tour. The same year, celebrity chef Rachel Ray cooked Thanksgiving dinner for 2,000 people and donated  a year’s food supply and a brand-new kitchen to Sugartree Ministries, the local soup kitchen that feeds 150 people a day. But only Beck had the entrepreneurial spirit to mix good old capitalist greed with Christian charity, hawking his book and charging admission. To be fair, Beck claims that net proceeds of his Wilmington shows will go to local charities but no figures were made public and he never said he would forgo his own fee. The bookstore that sold 800 Broke titles also touted the event as charity, but it was coming from their end, not from Beck or the publisher.  

In person, Beck comes off as a caring person, all  smiles, handshakes, head nods and an understanding ear. He even acknowledges that the poor and destitute at times require assistance. Recently, he has cultivated the persona of a small town baker, donning a white apron over his suit, with the words “I’m a baker not a divider.” According to Beck, the nation has been beaten down by communists and socialists who have robbed Americans of their can-do spirit. We are a nation full of people scrounging around for pieces of pie, leftover from the one federal pie offered us. As a result, we’ve gotten lazy, we’ve become beggars waiting for handouts. “Some people need help, that’s where charity comes in, but the vast majority of us, get off your ass and bake some pie."

On the eve of Beck’s visit, Jason Willhite was indeed waiting for his piece of pie. Willhite 33, lost his job with DHL and then was laid off from a printing press. He was eating dinner at the local soup kitchen with his two boys, 7 months and 19 months and his wife, Sandy Lamb. Willhite’s been out of work since April. When DHL closed, he had to cash in his 401K and sell his car to pay rent. For a while, the family lived in a hotel room paying $600 a month. They just moved into a shared house and found the water cut off. They receive $535 a month in cash assistance plus food stamps. Willhite’s been looking everywhere for work. Even the temp agencies have nothing.

“I get lucky now and then and find a tire to change or something,” he said. There is talk that maybe in 2011, part of the old DHL facility might open. He think the pay would be $9 or $10 an hour, but said the temp agencies are placing workers so his share the first three to six months, if he got a job, would only be $7 an hour.  He hates being on government assistance but is afraid of what could happen without it. His caseworker told them that incoming Governor John Kasich (formerly the Budget Committee Chairman in Congress during Newt Gingrich's Contract with America) is talking about cutting family assistance. With so much time on his hands,  Willhite volunteers at the local homeless shelter, where he says people are worse off than he is. 

Judy Ahrmann, also laid off by DHL, sat beneath a string of Christmas tinsel behind a table of Tupperware in a vendor array in the basement of the town’s bookstore.    She was joined by vendors selling chocolate, Avon products, Bavarian mugs and Christmas ornaments decorated with the U.S. Constitution. Business was not as brisk as people had hoped. During her days with DHL she sold Tupperware to make extra money.  Now it’s a full-time occupation. She’s heard of people making six figures selling the plastics but she’s not there yet. She said she’s learned a lot about customer service and how to identify and satisfy a client’s needs and desires. She wanted to demonstrate some products, spatulas, containers of all sizes with red, blue and purple lids. She offered her business card and promised she could ship anywhere in the USA. 

Glenn Beck at a $500 plate meet and greet breakfast in Wilmington, OhioGlenn Beck at a $500 plate meet and greet breakfast in Wilmington, Ohio

The Willhite family eating dinner at Sugartree Ministries, a soup kitchen in Wilmington, Ohio.
Jason Willhite has been out of work since April.

The Willhite family eating dinner at Sugartree Ministries, a soup kitchen in Wilmington, Ohio. Jason Willhite has been out of work since April.

Crowds waiting  for Glenn Beck in chilly downtown Wilmington, Ohio

Crowds waiting for Glenn Beck in chilly downtown Wilmington, Ohio.

More coverage of Beck in Ohio by Nina Berman with photographer Alan Chin, can be foundhere.

Nina Berman is a photographer and the author of Purple Hearts: Back From Iraq.