On the sixth day, I listened to Glenn Beck, and I saw that he was good. Or if not exactly good, then honest-to-God funny.
I had tuned in as part of a thought experiment then entering its final lap: an attempt to put myself in the Republican brain by spending a solid week listening to, watching, reading, surfing, and otherwise gorging on conservative media. As would also be true of an overdose of liberal media, it was lulling me into a stupor, and I was desperate for a jolt. Beck provided exactly that, in the form of comedy, and to my astonishment, I found myself laughing out loud—with him, not at him.
His subject was Clint Eastwood, who had stopped the show, so to speak, at the Republican National Convention the night before. Beck paid brief lip service to his party’s line—“I love Clint Eastwood”—but confessed he’d found the performance “painful to look at.” From that followed an extended comic riff, with studio sidekicks as straight men, in which he imagined the hasty backstage conference where a campaign strategist signed off on Clint’s solo act. In Beck’s fantasy, someone in the Romney camp did have qualms about letting an 82-year-old geezer vamp with an empty chair. But the skeptic had been overruled by a higher-up saying just “three magic words”—to wit, “It’s Clint Eastwood!” As in: “What could possibly go wrong? It’s Clint Eastwood!” Beck kept repeating this scenario with ever-more-manic variations, turning “It’s Clint Eastwood!” into a burlesque tagline akin to Gene Wilder’s crazed “No way out!” in The Producers (a Beck favorite). Only at the end of his shtick did politics intrude. Unless the person who said the three magic words “now has been terminated,” Beck said, he wouldn’t “trust Mitt Romney’s ability to run the country.” As he explained, it was only a small step from “It’s Clint Eastwood!” to “It’s Ben Bernanke!”—and the next thing you know, a Romney administration would be extending the term of the despised Fed chairman. He had a point.
If you are a Fox News–loathing liberal, chances are that you, like me, had not given much thought to Beck in the fifteen months since he and Fox parted ways and his heyday as a self-appointed generalissimo of the tea-party movement had passed. Since then, he has retreated into his own web bunker, the Blaze, and been largely forgotten by what Sarah Palin branded the “lamestream media.” But if he’s yesterday’s cause célèbre to the left, he remains a fixture in the right’s media firmament (and will soon be returning to television). His morning radio show, heard on more than 400 stations, attracts a cumulative weekly audience of at least 8.25 million listeners, according to the trade publication Talkers. That makes him the fourth-most-popular talk-show jock in the country, in a three-way tie for that spot with the conservative doomsayer Mark Levin and the (apolitical) money guru Dave Ramsey. The trinity of talk-radio giants at the top of the Talkers list are also right-wing icons: Rush Limbaugh (with 14.75 million listeners), Sean Hannity (14 million), and Michael Savage (8.75 million). You can devote every weekday cycling in succession through these four horsemen preaching a liberal apocalypse, with detours to second-tier conservative talkers like Neal Boortz, Michael Medved, and Hugh Hewitt whenever you feel like a palate cleanser. That’s what I did all week. After which I settled in with Fox’s prime-time schedule each night.
But in putting together a menu for my immersion in the right’s alternative media reality, I didn’t want to play the knee-jerk liberal game of shooting fish in a barrel. So while I surveyed all the usual fire-breathing suspects, including relative newcomers like Dana Loesch, the young Eve Harrington gaining on Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter, I added highbrow and garden-variety conservative voices. (Though not David Frum, Andrew Sullivan, David Brooks, and others who are portrayed as conservatives by the Establishment press but are all but invisible in either mainstream or boutique conservative media.) And I specifically chose the week of the GOP convention for my 24/7 reconnaissance mission behind enemy lines. It’s no secret what the right thinks of Barack Obama and the likes of me. I wanted to eavesdrop on what conservatives say about their own.
What did I learn in my week imbibing the current installment of the Reagan revolution? I came away with empathy for those in the right’s base, who are often sold out by the GOP Establishment, and admiration for a number of writers, particularly the youngish conservative commentators at sites like the American Conservative and National Review Online whose writing is as sharp as any on the left (and sometimes as unforgiving of Republican follies) but who are mostly unknown beyond their own ideological circles. What many of the right’s foot soldiers and pundits have in common is their keen awareness that they got a bum deal in Tampa, a convention that didn’t much represent either their fiercely held ideology or their contempt for the incumbent. They know, too, that their presidential candidate is the Republican counterpart to Al Gore—not only in robotic personality but in his cautious hesitance to give full voice to the message of his troops. Even Paul Ryan, the right’s No. 1 living hero, let many of his fans down with his convention speech—not because he fudged facts but because he soft-pedaled his “big ideas” about small government once in the national spotlight. Ryan left some conservatives wondering if the only thing they gained from having him on the ticket was his name on a lousy T-shirt.