It is the penultimate commercial break in Glenn Beck’s Fox News TV show, and the host is coming off an interview, of sorts, with Connecticut attorney general Richard Blumenthal about Blumenthal’s legally intriguing attempt to claw back AIG bonuses, during which Beck said to him, “You know what you’ve done? You are an insult to George Washington, sir.”
The rant seems to have winded him. “Oof. You know, I couldn’t do this every day,” confides Beck to a cameraman while stretching his legs; invisible to the folks at home are his laceless Converse sneakers. “To sit there and go, ‘You, sir, are a dirtbag!’ I mean, who does that?”
“So you don’t like exposing villains?” asks the cameraman. “You could never be Superman.”
“Never be Superman? I am Superman!” thunders Beck.
This is the strangely compelling emotional range of Beck, America’s top populist in its hour of need. That very morning, he was the subject of a page-one Times story that sought to explain his phenomenon. He lustily devotes the last few minutes of airtime to it. “I never thought I would say this,” he says, mischievously lowering his large pink head to the desk, “but the New York Times was actually fair!”
After the broadcast, a clutch of young, blonde producers gathers to praise Beck’s handling of Blumenthal as the host wipes off makeup; bits of towelette cling to his astringent-reddened cheeks. Then we’re off to the basement garage, where his hulking black Escalade idles. Every day, Beck’s driver-bodyguard delivers him from his lakefront mansion in Connecticut (his PR reps beg me not to reveal the exact town, as if Glenn Beck were a military installation) to Manhattan, where he tapes his radio and TV shows, and back. He bought the mansion in 2005, “right at the top [of the market],” he guffaws. “Look, if I lose my home because I bought too much of a home—it was my choice. My wife said to me at the time, ‘Maybe we should buy a smaller house.’ I said, ‘No, let’s buy one we can grow into.’ ” (The couple has four children.) “I’ve lost everything before. In 2000, I could barely afford my $695 rent, and I was happy.”
After a baroquely wretched youth—his alcoholic mother committed suicide when he was 13, and he bottomed out at 30—everything is suddenly going Beck’s way. At 45, he’s become the fastest-rising star at Fox News, pulling ratings close to Bill O’Reilly’s in a far less favorable 5 p.m. time slot. “I don’t like conflict,” he tells me. “Bill O’Reilly—there’s a part of him where it’s fun for him. I’d rather make everybody laugh.”
He’s called himself a “rodeo clown,” but he insists his own outrage is no act. A “libertarian, big time,” he compares the moment he heard about the first round of bailouts to “another 9/11.” And though his vision of the future is nothing less than apocalyptic—we could be heading into “the darkest period in American history”—in delivering it, he sounds less angry than hurt. Last month, he gave a sobbing sermon of consolation to disenfranchised conservatives (“They don’t surround us. We surround them”) that’s now a YouTube classic. Is he afraid that crying might become his trademark? “Yes, it bothers me. I’m a crybaby. I cry at commercials. I am 90 percent chick in that territory. I’m such an easy target. I’m surprised SNL hasn’t come after me.” (Sure enough, Stephen Colbert gets around to mocking Beck the next night, making him seem like a teary militia member.)
The Escalade exits the highway and weaves down an idyllic road between generously spaced-out Tudor mansions. “Lots of empty houses here,” says Beck, pointing at a blue Sotheby’s sign flapping at the top of one driveway. Does it feel strange to be prospering when the world, in Beck’s opinion, is going to hell? “I’m actually grateful,” he answers, “because we’ve been able to help people with our wealth.” We stop in the middle of a perfectly semi-circular driveway. George Washington’s so-called Personal Position Flag (with thirteen six-pointed stars) hangs from the mansion’s front window. Beck’s prized possession is a few pipes from a pipe organ in a church where Washington prayed.
“We were thinking about putting you in the trunk for the way back!” he says before disappearing inside.