By James Hohmann (politico.com)
Glenn Beck calls for national revival
Forty-seven years after Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech,” Fox News host Glenn Beck stood Saturday close to the spot at the Lincoln Memorial where the civil rights leader called for racial equality, urging the nation to return to “faith, hope and charity.”
The much-ballyhooed and quite controversial “Restoring Honor” rally has brought conservatives to Washington from all parts of the country. Many are making a long weekend of it, packing hotels and filling area campgrounds. Across the country, local tea party groups teamed up to charter buses to bring large crowds.
Beck, a fiery conservative populist, had urged his followers to leave political signs at home. He said that he wanted to celebrate America’s military personnel and accounted that the rally raised $5.5 million, which would go to the veterans’ charity Special Operations Warrior Foundation after defraying event costs.
The crowd remained civil and listened attentively through 200 minutes of speeches, prayers, songs and the awarding of medals.
Indeed, President Barack Obama was not referred to by name on stage once during the three-and-a-half hour program.
The focus of the rally was more explicitly religious than political, with many speakers openly professing their Christian faith, including Beck.
At points, it felt like a mixture of old-fashioned tent revival and a special (tamer than normal) episode of Beck’s show.
On average, more than 2 million viewers watch that daily show. Crowd size is notoriously difficult to estimate at such rallies on the National Mall, but Beck supporters expected more than 100,000 to attend. Beck tweeted last week that more than 1,000 buses were filled, with more chartered.
The crowd stretched from the memorial to the base of the Washington Monument, about a mile away, as Beck took the stage after the singing of the national anthem.
“Hello, America. I have just gotten word from the media that there is over a thousand people here today,” Beck said, with a hint of sarcasm. He later said he had heard the crowd was between 300,000 and 500,000, “and if that’s coming from the media, God only knows.”
While influential conservative groups and politicians had endorsed or supported the event, Republican party leaders carefully avoided it.
Metro trains and station platforms were packed with people headed for the rally. Vendors sold “Don’t Tread on Me” flags — a popular accessory at tea party rallies — outside the Smithsonian station. Blasting on loudspeakers nearby was King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. A picture of the civil rights leader was displayed with one of his quotes of how people must come together.
Many attendees had claimed seats the night before. Before 9 a.m., volunteers stood nearly 200 yards from the base of the steps of the memorial, telling people to turn around because the area was so densely packed, and struggling to clear an emergency exit lane as people pushed to get closer.
John Malham, a 47-year-old who owns a paintball field, left his home in Tabernacle, N.J., at 3 a.m. He caught a bus to Washington with his wife and sister. When he got here, he opened an adjustable pole and waved a big American flag.
“We need to step up as people to voice our freedoms before they get taken,” he said, adding that he’s “not hopeful” about the world that his three sons will inherit. As he motioned to the crowd pouring in, he said, “I just think it’s healthy for our country to have this.”
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a prospective GOP presidential candidate in 2012, delivered the keynote address, honoring U.S. military heroes. In keeping with Beck’s insistence that the rally be apolitical, Palin said she spoke as a mother, not a politician.
“Say what you want to say about me. I’m the mom of a combat vet and you can’t take that away from me,” she said, referring to her son, Track, an Army infantryman who has served in Iraq.
Still, Palin couldn’t resist a dig at Obama, without naming him. Alluding to a theme from his 2008 campaign, she said: ”We must not fundamentally transform America as some would want. We must restore America and restore her honor.”
More than 250 members of the Central Baptist Church in Wendell, N.C., gathered at 2:30 am. to catch a convoy of buses to the rally.
“I believe we need to restore the honor of our country. We’ve lost it,” said assistant pastor Bill Kincaid, 84. “Coming here today makes us aware that the majority of people feel the way we do.”
Zane Zimmerman, 49, who drove in from Dundee, Ohio, ascribed his decision to come to Christian faith. Beck often talks about providence on his radio and television shows.
“It’s not a political rally,” he said. “It is principles handed down by God that the Founding Fathers just put into words. It’s not political! … It’s not about presidents, senators or governors.”
But many, including those who have chosen to attend, see any event featuring Beck and Palin as inherently political. This was Palin’s first big public appearance since Joe Miller, her chosen candidate in Tuesday’s Republican Senate primary, appeared to upset incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski in Alaska. Ballots are still being counted, but the insurgent’s success is seen as a direct result of Palin choosing to wade aggressively into the contest.
Hundreds at the rally sported “I can see November from my House too!” stickers. A few people wore “Take Back The Hill” shirts. And many had on tea party shirts advertising where in the country they came from. When asked, most said they’d been involved in tea party activities and regularly watch Beck’s programs.
Joe Kurstin, 26, and Laura Fuchs, 25, braved the crowds, sporting navy-blue Obama ’08 shirts, buttons and stickers.
But aside from the whispers and strange looks, the only comment they heard from a Beck supporter was this: “I’ll pray for you.”
That was in stark contrast to the treatment they received at two Washington tea party rallies held this year, protesting the health care bill and Tax Day.
“At those rallies we were continuously engaged for hours,” Kurstin said. “Compared to that — other than people rolling their eyes and giving looks — this has been pretty much nothing.”
Late Friday, Beck gave a preview of the rally’s contents to an audience of more than 2,500 people at the Kennedy Center. Feigning a Boston accent as he first took the stage in front of a huge, car-dealership-sized U.S. flag, Beck said, “This is a preview of what’s coming — not just tomorrow, but for a very long time. … This is the beginning of the end of darkness. We have been in darkness for a long time.”
He revealed the formation of a “Black-Robed Regiment” of clergy members and said the event would be “a defibrillator to the spiritual heart of America.”
On Saturday, Beck brought 240 clergy (of various denominations) onto the stage to tout his new “regiment.” He asserted that thousands more were in the crowd. Then bagpipes played, and the crowd sang “Amazing Grace.”
Liberals saw the event as a political pep rally intended to fire up Republican activists prior to November’s midterm elections. Indeed, many tea party activists at the rally planned to attend other training events scheduled for Sunday. Some conservatives see it as little more than a self-aggrandizing exercise for Beck to cement his place as a leader in the conservative movement. He’s also been criticized for not being politically active enough.
“Beck’s insistence that today’s rally was nonpolitical ignores the facts. The fact is, today’s rally was political even if it wasn’t overtly partisan,” said Eric Burns, president of the left-wing group Media Matters for America.
Beck, who has described Obama as a racist, drew the most criticism for scheduling his rally at the Lincoln Memorial on such a historic date in the Civil Rights Movement. He maintains that the timing was unintentional, but he embraced the iconography as fitting even when African-American critics blasted him. He frustrated these critics further when he told viewers that they “will reclaim the civil rights movement.”
Beck rejected the fearmonger label, comparing himself to the person on the Titanic who said there was an iceberg ahead. And then he called for national unity.
“Blindfolded fear does not lead to an awakening. Questioning with boldness does,” he said.
About halfway through the three-hour rally, Beck ditched his necktie. Two hours and 20 minutes in, Beck choked up — as he often does on his show — while talking about bringing his kids to see the monuments this week. Signaling how choreographed and stage-managed the production was, the giant screens cut away to a video from inside the memorial.
He read Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address and said he’s staying in the same hotel where King finished his speech.
King’s niece, anti-abortion activist Alveda King, was one of many minority speakers and award recipients, a group that also included St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols, a native of the Dominican Republic, who received an award for promoting hope.
Like Beck, Alveda King linked the rally to her uncle’s speech. “If Uncle Martin were here today, he would surely commend us for giving honor where honor is due,” she said.
She said America still suffers from racism, and she said the check King said he wanted cashed in his speech hasn’t been. She said it only will be cashed when there’s prayer in schools and the public square. She also made an allusion to her fight against abortion, which drew loud cheers.
Meanwhile, many in the predominantly white crowd bent over backward to insist that they are not racists and to note that the crowd was courteous, despite heat and density.
“Everyone has a right to their own opinion,” said Kim Roper, a 55-year-old conservative activist from Trevor, Wis. “We are a big family.”
A separate event organized by civil rights groups, at a high school not far from the Mall, was called “Reclaim the Dream” — specifically, reclaiming it from Beck and his supporters. The Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, the National Urban League and other groups sponsored a program that was to include a speech from Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
“The folks who criticize our marches are now trying to march themselves,” Sharpton said. “They may have the Mall, but we have the message. They may have the platform, but we have the dream. The dream was not states’ rights.”
Martin Luther King III, King’s son, also spoke there. The crowd then marched to a site near the Tidal Basin, where a memorial to honor King is under construction. Some had thought the separate march could raise the specter that there could be clashes between the two groups.
Sharpton addressed those concerns directly: “Trouble today? Ain’t no trouble today. We wouldn’t disgrace this day by allowing you to provoke us.”
Not everyone on the Mall Saturday came for the rallies. Strolling near the White House, Peter Larkin, 58, of the Hartford, Conn.-area, was dropping off his daughter, a sophomore at George Washington University. He didn’t even know Beck was holding a rally until a friend text-messaged him.
“It’s interesting this knucklehead says the timing is irrelevant. Of course it’s relevant,” Larkin said. “It offends me when someone says it’s a coincidence, that it’s serendipity.”
Ken Vogel, Marin Cogan, Scott Wong and Mike Allen contributed to this report.