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Charting Glenn Beck, Tea Party Influences on U.S. Electorate

August 30, 2010 at 6:12 PM EDT
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Throngs of Americans answered Glenn Beck's call to attend a weekend rally entitled "Restoring Honor" on the National Mall. Judy Woodruff and analysts gauge his popularity among voters and examine what effect he and the tea party could have on the midterm elections.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to the weekend rally on the National Mall and the throngs who showed up to answer FOX News host Glenn Beck’s call.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Tens of thousands rallied near the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington Saturday morning for an event with overtones of a Christian revival.The organizer, conservative commentator Glenn Beck, announced the gathering was about restoring honor.

GLENN BECK, host, “Glenn Beck”:This day is a day that we can start the heart of America again.And it has nothing to do with politics.It has everything to do with God, everything, turning our face back to the values and the principles that made us great.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Despite Beck’s statement about no politics, the other featured speaker was former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin.

SARAH PALIN (R), former Alaska governor: I know that many of us today, we are worried about what we face. Sometimes, our challenges, they just seem insurmountable. But here together, at the crossroads of our history, may this day, may this day be the change point. Look around you. You are not alone. You are Americans!


JUDY WOODRUFF: Highlighting themes of faith, hope and charity, Beck recognized several individuals, among them, Baptist Minister C.L. Jackson of Houston.

REV. C.L. JACKSON, Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church:God brought us here through this bright, young, I call him servant of God, son of God, Glenn Beck.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Another was baseball superstar Albert Pujols of the Saint Louis Cardinals, who drew cheers.

The controversy surrounding Beck’s rally grew out of the fact it was scheduled exactly 47 years after Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.Across town, a group of civil rights activists led by the Reverend Al Sharpton held a counter-rally at a Washington, D.C., high school…

REV. AL SHARPTON, civil rights activist:Let us pray.Dear God, we thank you for…

JUDY WOODRUFF: … followed by a march at the site of a planned King memorial.Sharpton urged his crowd to show restraint if confronted by those who rallied with Beck.

REV. AL SHARPTON: They want to disgrace this day.And we are not given them this day.This is our day, and we ain’t giving it away.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The event Saturday remained peaceful.But, by Sunday the rhetoric was inflamed yet again.In an appearance on FOX News, Beck renewed his criticism of President Obama’s faith.

GLENN BECK: What does the president believe?Four different speeches since he has been president, he has told — and mainly students — that your salvation is directly tied to the collective salvation.That — that’s not something that most Christians recognize.I don’t — I’m not demonizing it.I disagree with it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Speaking with Brian Williams of NBC News yesterday in New Orleans, the president was asked about the Beck rally and what it said about the country.Mr. Obama said the frustration was understandable, given the many challenges the nation faces.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:Given all those anxieties, and given the fact that, you know, in none of these situations are you going to fix things overnight, it’s not surprising that somebody like a Mr. Beck is able to stir up a certain portion of the country.That’s been true throughout our history.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That much was evident by the large turnout on the National Mall Saturday.

For more on the rally and the man behind it, we are joined by Kate Zernike of The New York Times and author of the soon-to-be-released book “Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America,” and David Von Drehle.He’s editor at large for TIME magazine.

Good to have you both with us.David, I’m going to start with you.You did write TIME’s cover story on Glenn Beck last year.Remind us who he is, where he came from, and tell us a little about his background.

DAVID VON DREHLE, TIME Magazine:Well, Glenn Beck comes from top 40 morning zoo radio.That’s where he started out his career, as a goofy guy doing radio stunts.He — he did that through the ’80s and the ’90s.He has talked about his battles with alcoholism.He conquered that in part by joining the Mormon Church, straightened out his life, and, since then, has been moving in the direction of becoming more of a conservative talk radio host.

But his politics are very gradually evolving.And there’s still a big part of that — of that morning zoo, entertainment-oriented, event-organizing, entrepreneurial spirit to the kind of work that Beck does.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So how did he get to the point where he can attract such a huge crowd to the Lincoln Memorial?

DAVID VON DREHLE: Well, he’s a great promoter.I really think it’s three things, Judy.Number one, he has tapped into a spirit that is real.As the president was saying, there are a lot of frustrated people out there trying to figure out what’s going on in this country right now.Number two, Beck is immensely talented and very hardworking.He — he knows what he is doing.

And, number three, the media have changed.And so, because of technology, people can now be reached in the ideological niche or the entertainment niche that they choose.And, so, Beck’s audience, which, on television, is about, you know, between two and three million people a day, back in the days of broadcast, that would have gotten him canceled.But, today, that can be a dynamic, large audience.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kate Zernike, you covered the rally yesterday.As we have said, you have written the book.He said he didn’t want this rally to be about politics.He did have Sarah Palin talk.And you wrote in your story that the crowd was a mix of people who have been involved in the Tea Party.So, was it political or not?

KATE ZERNIKE, national correspondent, The New York Times: Well, I think it was certainly political in Sarah Palin’s remarks. And I think there were actually a lot of people there who seemed to expect a little bit more. They were sort of surprised by the overtly religious tones and were sort of expecting more of a political rally.

And I think they are going to get that in a couple of weeks.Remember that there’s going to be another series of rallies September 11 and 12 in Washington again.And that will be much more overtly political.And Beck is working with some of the people who will be arranging those rallies.So, I think it’s sort of you have to look at these as kind of bookends to Tea Party action in Washington in these few weeks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, how do you see the overlap, Kate, between these Tea Party folks, folks who may be part of that movement, and then this restoring-honor theme that Beck was — was talking about on Saturday?

KATE ZERNIKE: Right. Well, I think — remember that the Tea Party — so, the Tea Party started in February of 2009. And about three weeks later, Glenn Beck had a special episode of his program on FOX where he called for the forming of these 9/12 groups, which are sort of the Glenn Beck brand of Tea Party.

And so there is a lot of overlap between those groups.But in terms of restoring honor, this is kind of classic populism.I mean, throughout — throughout history — and, again, as the president said, we have seen this and people have talked about restoring the real America, and, in particular, sort of the sense that they are the real Americans, and they’re working against these elites.And I think, in this case, they see the elites as the Obama administration and the Democrats in charge of Congress.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David, what — I mean, you have studied, again, spent time looking at Glenn Beck. What does he want to restore exactly? What is it that he is trying to accomplish? Does he know?

DAVID VON DREHLE: You know, that’s the — yes, that’s the great mystery of Glenn Beck.These things, these projects of his, seem to have the sort of made-up-on-the-fly kind of quality to them.They are always built around sort of great, but vague concepts like honor.We’re all in favor of honor.

You know, the Constitution is at the heart of his 9/12 project.Well, you know, most Americans are in favor of the Constitution.And Beck is always promising in his shows that he’s going to bring more and more definition to these ideas.But, somehow, that part of it never quite happens.

And I think he understands that, the more he defines these ideas, the more people are going to disagree with them. And, so, he’s trying to build the biggest tent he can in his — in his niche and draw in as many people and hold

them as long as he can.So, some people think it’s about religion.Some people think it’s about the Second Amendment.Some people think it’s about the Democrats.Beck will often say that he’s — he — he hates the Republicans as much as the Democrats.So, he keeps it deliberately vague.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Kate, from a Tea Party perspective, what do they see in this?

KATE ZERNIKE: Well, I mean, these are absolutely Tea Party themes, in terms of getting back to the Constitution and really being really patriotic.And so he’s hitting all the right notes.And in terms of — you know, when they talk about the Constitution, he’s talking about a very specific, originalist view of the Constitution, which says that, you know, the founding fathers very much had religion in mind when they wrote the Constitution and that we should be a more religious society.

He’s saying things like the founding fathers didn’t believe that we would have a public safety net.It is a very specific view of the Constitution, which is actually what a lot of Tea Partiers are learning when they take these Constitution classes.I mean, the founding fathers and the Tea Party metaphor is actually not a metaphor for them.It’s a frame of mind.They very much see themselves in that tradition as sort of defending against a far-off, careless government, which they see now as Washington, rather than Britain.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, David, I watched some — I was able to watch some of Glenn Beck’s show late this afternoon.And he spent a lot of time talking, really criticizing the media coverage of the rally and saying he had not been given credit for what was accomplished there.

DAVID VON DREHLE: Right. You know, bashing the media is a big part of this anti-elite viewpoint that he’s capitalizing on.And the beauty of that is that everything is the media now.You know, everything from people with a blog, to TIME magazine, to this show, you know, it’s all the media.

So, he’s always right about that.There will always be some media somewhere that is not giving him the credit that he deserves, at the same time that he’s being covered to an extent that, you know, very few radio personalities, television personalities ever have been.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kate, you mentioned that he has a political rally scheduled a few weeks from now.Where do you see this going, especially as we get closer to the midterm elections?

KATE ZERNIKE: Well, I think what you are going to see more and more is — are some of these Tea Party groups, like FreedomWorks, which is Dick Armey’s group, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, their group working with Glenn Beck.

They’re working — they had a convention Friday night, before the Beck event on Saturday.And I think you’re going to see them moving very much in tandem and kind of, you know, stoking this — this anti-elitism and this voter anger.And I think that is really go to be a huge — that is where the Tea Party is going to have impact, if they have impact, in November in the midterms, is in getting people to the polls.And, again, as David was saying, it’s vague in some ways, so he is not necessarily saying, go to specific candidates.But, in the end, it’s really going to help Republicans, because that is — that is where all this energy is going.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, just quickly, last word, David.Help us understand that.You said his ideology is evolving, but both you are saying this helps Republicans.

DAVID VON DREHLE: I think it does.I mean, the — especially midyear elections, Judy, are about energy.They’re about motivation.And it’s — the right is motivated this year, in the same way that, two years ago, it was the Democratic Party and the left that had the energy.And so, when you see that kind of a gathering that we saw over the weekend, you know, that’s got to concern Democratic officeholders, because those people are not going to go vote to keep the incumbents in.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we thank both of you for talking with us. David Von Drehle, Kate Zernike, thank you.