Scenes From Beckapalooza

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Photo: Nicholas KammAFP/Getty Images

At 9:45 a.m. on Saturday morning, Washington, D.C., was August quiet. Then Glenn Beck's army emerged from the Foggy Bottom Metro station.

The escalators spilled an endless stream of people, packing the sidewalks from the George Washington University Hospital all the way down the Lincoln Memorial, about a mile away. A group of men waved giant, yellow "Don’t Tread on Me" flags. Every 100 feet or so stood vendors hawking lapel and backpack pins that read “NØBAMA” and “We the People: the 9/12 Project." NØBAMA sold briskly.

“I’m here for Glenn Beck,” said many a metro rider as they struck off for the memorial.

Beck, the polarizing Fox News commentator, chose the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s "I Have a Dream" speech to stand where King stood and to host his Restoring Honor rally. It was ostensibly about religious faith and supporting the troops. Beck called the choice of 8/28 unintentional, but “divine providence” nevertheless. Sarah Palin delivered a keynote.

Beck had promised to use this moment “to reclaim the civil rights movement.” prompting a slew of of angry editorials and a counter-march led by Al Sharpton. “What Mr. Beck and Ms. Palin represent is the opposite of what civil rights is about,” Sharpton told CNN. “The civil rights movement of '63 was to come to Washington to ask government to protect citizens, to intervene in our lives. He's coming to tell government to get out of our lives."

Most in the crowd expressed a palpable, if not uniform, anxiety about the state of the union. Dozens hawked self-published books like “The New Democrat, By Dr. Truth,” which had a Sambo-like drawing of President Obama as the Cat in the Hat, and “Government of Deceit: A sobering analysis of Americas Finances, Governance and Society — and how we got here.” They were notably averse to speaking to the press.

“The press hates us, don’t make me look too ugly,” said Jen, a 27-year-old from California in skinny jeans and a “Refounding America” T-shirt who declined to give her last name. She was in town to “stop the country from heading towards becoming a 3rd World Country.”

Wearing a large, rhinestone American Flag pin festooned to her red T-shirt, Shirley Patterson of Chattanooga was accompanied by two busloads of friends. She called herself a “professional protestor,” having been to five other rallies including the 9/12 march, which was also organized by Beck, and the “Code Red" event protesting Obama's health-care reforms. A fan of Beck’s radio program (“I don’t watch TV”), Patterson explained she was a part of those “groups that want to restore the Constitution" and "to get back to the vision of our founding fathers,” especially the nation's “Christian roots.”

And then it was time for Beckapalooza to begin in earnest. “He brings you the truth every day. And now he brings you the opportunity to Restore Honor in America. Ladies and Gentlemen: Glenn Beck!”

“Something beyond imagination is happening. Something that is beyond man is happening. America today begins to turn back to God!” Beck told the cheering crowd, pacing the stage like a preacher at a tent revival. “For too long, this country has wandered in darkness … To restore America and restore honor we have to start at the beginning … when people came together in the spirit of God. …

Palin, in her speech, touted her credentials as a "military mom." Her son, Track, served a year in Iraq.

"I’ve been asked to speak as the mother of a soldier and I am proud of that distinction. Say what you want to say about me, but I raised a combat vet and you can’t take that away from me," she said. "Look around you. You're not alone. You are Americans! You have the same steel spine and moral courage of Washington and Lincoln and Martin Luther King. It is in you. It will sustain you as it sustained them."

On the sidewalk at the Lincoln Memorial stood Al and Ed, brothers who live in southern New Jersey and Georgia, respectively. “Glenn Beck speaks for America,” said Ed. “The Government doesn’t speak for us.” Ed, carrying a massive American flag with thirteen stars and a Roman numeral two in the center of the circle, wore a Virginia Military Institute blue cap and an American-flag T-shirt.

Asked about Martin Luther King Jr., he became animated. “The civil rights movement was unfairly accredited to only one sector of political society,” he said. “It is a color-blind society and we believe in that.” Ed explained that Beck’s decision to host the event on the anniversary of the “I have a Dream” speech was a correction, of sorts, a means of pointing out that all of America had inherited the mantle of King.

“You know why the Roman numeral II?” he asked, rhetorically. “Because this is a Revolutionary flag. And we’re heading towards a second American Revolution. It might be peaceful; it might turn into Vietnam-era style protests. I work for the Department of Defense and if the federal government doesn’t wake up there is going to be a revolt.”

Ed served in the military during the Cold War, stationed in Germany. “We’re a patriotic family,” he said. “My other brother served on a nuclear submarine.”

From the stage, Beck offered “Merit Badges” to three individuals who had served the country in "Faith,” “Honor,” and “Charity.” The day was punctuated with video tributes, references to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., calls to Jesus, and frequent reminders that Americans are “the greatest people the world has ever known.”