Glenn Beck Comes to Town

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Glenn Beck held a massive rally at the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday, with hundreds of thousands* of people--ralliers themselves will tell you over a million--packed in around the Reflecting Pool and spilling over into adjacent fields, sitting on the ledges of the World War II Memorial, shouted away from their perches by monument volunteers, and watching jumbotrons from as far away as the Washington monument--all there to witness Beck's powerful gusts of idea and prayer on the 47th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech.

Surprisingly, Beck's rally wasn't a political event.

The last time this many Tea Partiers could be found anywhere near the Mall, it was March, when congressional Democrats were hammering out a health-care compromise. Thousands of protesters shook their signs at the Capitol from all sides, chanting periodically about the health care bill and Nancy Pelosi and how Congress wouldn't listen to them. It was the same day the N-word was allegedly--people dispute this--hurled at black members of Congress. The atmosphere was thick with victimized rage.

Saturday's rally was...different.

I got there around 9:15 a.m., and the place was politically charged, to be sure. DC Metro trains were packed with Beck and Sarah Palin fans heading into the city from far-away hotels at the last stops on the Metro system, where rally-goers had booked rooms at much cheaper rates. People milled about excitedly, having come from all over the country in t-shirts sold by Beck online. Tea Partiers are usually eager to share their views, and this morning they did so in full force.

"Want to know why I'm here?" asked a the first person I talked to--Nick, a 61-year-old retired nurse anesthetist from Sidell, LA in a rally-themed t-shirt--in the line for a port-a-potty off the Mall. Sure, I said. "As Popeye would say, that's alls I can stand and I can't stand no more." What couldn't he stand? "We've got czars running everything." And health care reform. "It was unconstitutional, for one thing."

Cheri, a 52-year-old retired teacher, had come from Oklahoma (26 hours by bus, no stop-over) with a handful of blue-t-shirted members of the Leflore City Tea Party. Her group has incorporated prayer into their meetings, and she describes them as "concerned Christians." President Obama: not so much. Cheri believes, emphatically, that Obama is a Muslim. "Just look at all the things he's done," she tells me, when I ask. "He's not for our God--whose God is he for?"

"I don't believe in peaceful Muslims," she says. "Before you know it, we're gonna be overwhelmed by Muslims."

I probe for reasons, and she cites Obama's address to a gathering in honor of Ramadan at the White House--the one where he seemingly endorsed the Ground Zero mosque. I ask about Cheri's views on climate change, as another lady, of the same group, pokes her finger at my notebook, telling me to "print that!" and not to lie about the event. They don't believe in climate change. A few hundred yards away, closer to the Lincoln Memorial, a "USA!" chant breaks out.

(I only asked a small handful of people whether they think Obama is Muslim--maybe six. Opinions were about 50/50, and I got some well-reasoned answers to the negative, including a 56-year-old, unemployed Catholic named Mike who hails from Raleigh--formerly New Jersey--and who wouldn't mind the least bit if Obama was Muslim.)

If anything, this rally exploded the notion that the Tea Party is divorced from religious sentiment and social conservatism--as hard as it tries to be--and made plain the truth that Glenn Beck holds those two worlds together in a charismatic nexus.

There were no signs being waved by Tea Partiers or Beck supporters. At all. Beck had asked that no one bring political signs to this event, and everyone abided. I didn't see one the entire time, walking around the cirumference of the Reflecting Pool as the event began, or milling about during. A few carried flags bearing "Don't Tread on Me" insignia. But that was it. The only signs present were held by liberal opponents of the whole event.

Beck comes on stage around 10 a.m., when the rally is scheduled to start, to applause. He doesn't say anything about President Obama, progressives, the health care law, czars, or anything else having to do with politics or government. He doesn't say anything about government or politics the entire day. The word "Obama" never passes his lips.

"What is it that America still believes in?" Beck asks in his opening remarks. His answer: "our military." Beck has put this event on to raise awareness and benefit the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, a veterans' charity. The rally is heavy on two distinct things: support for veterans, and religion. Beck emcees and introduces his various speakers--mostly faith leaders and family members of veterans.

Not long into it, Beck introduces Sarah Palin, and he explains that it's not going to be political (if it's possible to have a Palin speech not be political). He introduces her not as a political figure, but as "the mother of someone in the military."

And Palin stays away from politics, too. The most political thing said on stage all day, in my estimation, was her line: we must not fundamentally transform America as some would want. We must restore America and her honor."

The phrase "as some would want," we can probably assume, was a reference to the president. But that's as political as she gets. She spends much of her time introducing and telling the stories a few veterans who walk across the Lincoln Memorial steps, hug her, and then leave the stage. Reading from a sheet of paper as she details their stories, Palin looks quite the opposite from the free-form Beck, who wanders the stage with a headset, gesturing with his hands, improvising most of the way. Her speech, in its entirety, is about support for the military and the restoration of America.

Which is Beck's theme for the event. Its official title is "Restoring Honor." T-shirts in the crowd bear the "Restoring Honor" insignia--a Shepard Fairey-style drawing of the Lincoln Memorial with those two words in big, block print. The three sub-themes are "Faith, Hope, Charity."

"At this crossroads of our history, let this day be the change point," Palin says. "Look around you. You are not alone, you are Americans!" Applause.

When Palin leaves the stage after delivering such generalities about American honor and restoration, the politically charged atmosphere dies down palpably. By that time, people have been out in the sun for a few hours. It's not that hot--86 degrees--but hot enough to put everyone in a soporific daze.

A gospel singer takes the stage. Everyone is lulled out of politics, and that's how it remains for the rest of the day.

Everything Glenn Beck says during the rally has to do with the discovery of faith, American history, or some connection between the two. He lists more American historical figures than it's possible to count. He tells the crowd to discover faith. He tells them the future of America rests on their personal discoveries of faith, and on the nation's collective discovery of faith.

It's a history-driven narrative about personal redemption, religion, and American identity. And that's why people like it. "He's a historian," one man tells me when I ask about Beck's appeal.

"God is not done with you yet, and he is not done with man's freedom yet," Beck tells the audience at one point.

A recovering alcoholic, Beck applies a moment-of-clarity, will-surrendering ethos of rehab and religious discovery to everything he touches, including politics on his TV show. It's all an epiphany--and it's all forceful and immediate. America is falling apart, and it needs to be saved. Beck is a level five hurricane of gnostic dualities, and his faith and life experiences seem to inform that worldview heavily.

"Find out what you truly believe," Beck implores the crowd. "When the storm comes up and your ship is being tossed, you gotta rely on something."

Beck has a penchant for history--telling it, writing it, and being a part of it. At one point, he tells the crowd that the hotel he's staying in is the same one where Martin Luther King, Jr. finished the "I have a dream" speech, and that it's also the same hotel where the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" was written.

"It was George Whitefield in 1740," Beck says--referencing one of dozens of American historical figures, some quite obscure, some well known, that he references during his time on stage. "It was his words that inspired an American generation...they were children at the time, but they grew up to be John Adams...Thomas Jefferson."

"It happens the same way, it has since the Burning Bush. Moses. Freedom. And then they forget. They wander 'til they remember that God is the answer. He always has been. And then they begin to trust."

The founding fathers, faith, God, Biblical figures, and the transposition of Old Testament journeys onto the American story. This is what Glenn Beck is.

The massive gathering today was more like a Christian rock concert, or an evangelical mass-prayer meeting, than a political rally. In fact, a solid portion of it literally did consist of those two things: there was prayer, Becks calls for reflection on faith, and a string of gospel singers interspersed with speeches by faith leaders. Between speakers, a wall of sparkling piano and tinkling bells would smack into the crowd, while a deep, booming voice came on through the PA and images flashed on the jumbo-trons. "FAITH," the voice would say. Or: "Man has always searched for a better way, a grander expression," as a photo of the Wright brothers' plane flashes on-screen.

Beck explained how his the rally came about, as a concept.

"When I put this together in my head, I felt it was supposed to be political," Beck says. He recalls a rally in Florida where 25,000 people showed up. "I broke out in a cold sweat," Beck tells the audience. "I grabbed my assistant by the lapels and I pulled him in close and I screamed in his ear, 'I don't know how, but we're wrong!'"

The theme of Faith, Hope, and Charity came to him over the holidays, he says. He brought it to his collaborators. Beck says he told them: "I don't know...I don't understand it either, but this is where we're going."

(Also, the rally couldn't have been political, due to the tax-exempt status of Beck's veterans' charity.)

The people at the rally were mostly reverent--that was the best word I heard to describe the them and their tone. Reverent and nice. Not a lot of litter. The crowd prided itself on that. The people I talked to like Beck because he "tells the truth," and expresses what's on their minds. Many of them came fully expecting the dominant religiosity of the experience, and, while Beck is a Mormon, his message is resonating with Christians of many denominations.

The crowd is nearly all white, and I spot only five black people in the audience the entire time. One, a middle-aged man from St. Louis, is carrying a sign attacking Tony LaRussa and Albert Pujols for being there. They not only attended, but took the stage--LaRussa introduced Pujols, and Pujols received a medal from Beck for "Charity," delivering a short acceptance speech about his faith. Another is there to help his nephew with a civics-class project. He says he likes Glenn Beck. Another, a 29-year-old DC resident who just finished a graduate degree, is there to protest. She says, "I see them come to our city, and even though I disagree with them, I tell them, please, shop in our city."

I follow the St. Louisan around for a bit, and people take offense at his sign--which refers to "rednecks" and calls Palin a "nut."

"That's not a very nice thing to say!" one lady says, raising her voice. "You'd better put that away," a man says.

"No, I'd better not put it away," the St. Louisian says, smiling, telling people that Palin is divisive and he just wants people to "stop dividing." He remains cordial. One man tells him he doesn't belong there. "This is America," he replies, smiling. "I'm an American." Most of the criticism he endures comes from Beck supporters who are smiling too, and laughing, but in anger. Things stay civil for the most part.

Beck's message isn't resonating with everyone. As I walk to the press tent, Beck references, "the man with the stick and the burning bush." From the direction of a golf cart where two event set-up guys are sitting, I hear someone say: "Stick in the bush." Not in a way that indicates an appreciation.

But nearly everyone I talk to loves Beck for the same reason: his expression of something they feel is true. "He's a voice for what's in our hearts. He's speaking our minds," says Mike from Raleigh. "He's giving us a voice."

"He's willing to stand up and say things that people don't want to hear," says Timberly, a 24-year old who came in from Richmond.

The rally is beginning to take its toll on the Beck faithful. A middle-aged man with gray chest hair curling from his nearly half-unbuttoned shirt is talking to a cop along a barricade. He's about 15 yards from some restrooms. The sun is beating down on them.

"You have to go around," the cop says, pointing in a circular motion.

"Can I go to the bathroom?" the man asks, exasperated.

"If you go around..." the cop points again.

On stage, Beck is still oscillating between faith and history. He lands on history.

"I've been waiting for the next George Washington," Beck says, laughing, almost crying, in near-hysterical urgency. "He might be eight years old, but this is the moment that he dedicates his life..."

At the end of it, Beck tells a story about how Amazing Grace was written by the captain of a slave ship, after (returning to this theme) a storm at sea, during which he threw his fate on God's mercy.

A bagpipe player emerges from the side of the Lincoln steps. Eight more follow, and some audience members begin to sing. Beck does too, faintly, clearly uncomfortable singing into a microphone. A professional singer comes on and takes up the tune. Beck has invited all the speakers back to the steps and they stand, solemnly, behind him. He thanks everyone, and says, "May God bless you."

The rally is over.

Hundreds of thousands of people move away slowly, in a tired, huddled mass.

*UPDATE: Highly, highly unscientific estimate. CBS estimated 87,000, while Beck himself cited estimates (not sure where they came from) of 300,000 and 500,000. I based "hundreds of thousands" on the impression that the crowd totaled more than one and a half times the size of a packed NFL stadium, which would put it safely over 100,000. See more on this here.

Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images.