Is Glenn Beck Running for Office?

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Ask those who showed up at Glenn Beck's rally in Washington this weekend and they'll likely tell you that in their dream world, Beck would run for president. And he would do so on a ticket with Sarah Palin. Those two together would be unstoppable, you'd hear, and are the only pair who can, to borrow a phrase from Beck, "restore America."

Such was the theme of the rally the Fox News pundit launched Saturday on the National Mall—an event that coincided with the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s seminal "I Have a Dream" speech, which was delivered on the very same site. Officials estimated that more than 100,000 people—many of them Tea Party supporters—showed up to hear Beck pay tribute to his country and, in usual character, sling some mud at the man currently leading it. Fearing the sometimes fire-breathing rhetoric of Tea Partiers, top Republicans stayed away from the rally. Conservative strategists also worried that if Beck appeared too extreme, it could be easy in the fall for Democrats to portray Republicans as loony and on the fringe.

glenn-beck-rally-crowd-hsmall Many in the crowd of about 100,000 were dressed in patriotic colors and garb. Jacquelyn Martin / AP

However, though Beck's "Live at the Lincoln Memorial" special was a lot of things—part church service, part military tribute, and part self-improvement seminar—it wasn't political. That may have been a strategic move. In the weeks leading up to the event, Beck repeatedly said he didn't want the rally to be at all about politics—a claim that, from a political commentator such as him, was as easy to believe as Keith Olbermann claiming that maybe government regulation isn't such a good idea. Right-wing red-meat-thrower Palin was also on hand to address the crowd but disavowed her role as a politician, saying she was speaking only as the mother of someone in the military. Neither she nor Beck once mentioned President Obama.

Figuring out why the crowd was there—some attendees came from as far away as California, by bus, for the event—was tougher. One man told me he just loves America and hates to watch it slide backward. He didn't care to expand. A woman said the purpose of the day was to stand resolute on the Mall "until Obama comes to explain himself." She said she'd wait all day if it took that long. At the other end of the Mall, the Rev. Al Sharpton and others gathered for a march where he defended Obama and accused Beck and his organizers of hijacking King's message and legacy.

Beck was in his usual garb—open-collar shirt, reading glasses that are repeatedly taken on and off—but his rhetoric was void of the usual bombast and provocation. Instead, the man often accused of fearmongering took a notably inclusionary tone. "There's a lot we can disagree on, but our values and our principles can unite us," he told the crowd. Most of the rally was filled with talk of his latest triumvirate of principles: faith, hope, and charity. And these rather amorphous ideas were each accompanied by a video montage, with Beck's voice-over narration set to images of the American Revolution, Abraham Lincoln, and King's speech. The rest of the commentator's almost hourlong sermon was packed with lofty, if seemingly rote, buzzwords like "justice," "liberty," and "honor." With the host and his devotees avoiding saying or doing anything controversial, the entire program was likely agreeable to virtually anyone watching at home.

The purpose of the day, Beck said, was to bring America "back to God" in a sort of national revival. It may also have been a way for the TV host to position himself as the unofficial leader of an unofficial movement. Notwithstanding the political views of those who showed up, it was an opportunity for Beck to portray himself, perhaps to the Jon Stewarts of the world, as a humble and tolerant man. And, importantly, an eminently reasonable one.