The flowery video tributes to Martin Luther King Jr. had finally faded, the random calls from the podium for "justice" -- never backed up with specifics -- had stopped, and Alveda King's rambling and sometimes contradictory tribute to her late uncle was in the books, and now it was Glenn Beck pacing the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Just a few feet away from the spot where King stood 47 years ago this very date and called for economic as well as racial justice in his "I Have a Dream Speech," declaring that "America has given the Negro people a bad check," the Fox News host and Pied Piper looked out at the massive crowd of several hundred thousand mostly white conservatives and said something both stunning and telling.
"The poorest among us are still some of the richest in the world," Beck declared. "The poorest among us have blessings beyond the wildest imagination of anyone that Mother Theresa visited. And yet we don't recognize it."
The remark drew applause from a large throng that packed both sides of the giant reflecting pool that stretches east from the iconic Lincoln shrine -- the same flag-shrouded and largely middle-aged masses who minutes earlier had warmly clapped for the video tribute to the slain civil rights crusader. Beck and friends spent three hours Saturday making his appropriation of the King anniversary -- intended or accidental, who knows? -- into a feel-good moment, and his audience cheerily bought in.
A Sebastian, Fla. small business owner named Jerry Brown who came up for the rally told me afterward that while he came here because of his worries about government spending and because "we've been getting away from constitutional principles," he ended up moved by the King comparisons, although it was hard for him to elaborate exactly why.
The reality on the National Mall today was that with his empty comparisons to the King legacy, Beck revealed how radically different - and disheartening -- his real vision for America is, especially at a time of lingering unemployment, fading home ownership, and growing anxieties over race, religion and immigration that is rivaling the upheaval of the 1960s.
Think about it. In 1963, King and thousands of Americans marched to the Lincoln Memorial in a plea to Washington for massive action to tackle the problems of poverty and unemployment and also to block the forces of "nullification" and "interposition" -- personified by Alabama's racist Gov.George Wallace - that prevented blacks from voting and even using the same drinking fountains asd whites.
In 2010, Beck not only told his predominantly middle-class gathering that not only do the poor in America not have it so bad but that in an era of political roadblocks, America need not focus on taking collective action but should look inward for answers, devoting more time to family but in particular by turning to God, the major theme of the Restoring Honor rally. Indeed, in his keynote speech, he said the rally had "nothing to do with politics, everything to do with God."
In a sense, that was true. In the works and in the news and eventually the subject of much controversy for much of this year, the actual "Restoring Honor" rally was a strange and often tepid affair -- stripped of all the political red-meat and angry Obama bashing (indeed, the president was almost never mentioned either from the podium or in the vast crowd) that has marked earlier Tea Party events, including the large Beck-inspired 9-12 rally last fall. It was nothing like any Tea Party-incited event I'd attended over the last year while researching my book on the movement, The Backlash: Right-Wing Radicals, High-Def Hucksters and Paranoid Politics in the Age of Obama. That might have been a disappointment to some in the crowd who traveled to Washington to show their displeasure with the current administration.
That's why Bert Melli was one of more than 100 people huddled in the pre-dawn pitch blackness at 4:45 a.m. yesterday in a shopping center parking lot in Havertown, Pa., waiting for a bus. "We have to let people know they are unhappy with the direction of the country," said Melli, a 78-year-old retiree. "This is a way to get their attention."
But what Melli and the other heated overheated masses got instead on a languid, partly cloudy August day was an event that at times felt like the Jerry Lewis Telethon, minus the comic stylings of Shecky Greene. There were lengthy homages to the Special Operations Warrior Fund, the charity that will benefit from a portion of the $5.5 million that Beck claimed he raised for the event, and the awarding of Badges of Merit including one for "Hope" to St. Louis Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols, who like some of the other speakers credited his devotion to Jesus Christ. For long stretches, the masses -- some a half-mile or so from the stage -- seemed mostly disengaged from the ceremonies, some staring at the ground..
The much-hyped appearance by former Alaska half-term governor turned media millionaire Sarah Palin came early and was unremarkable. Beck said he'd wanted a speaker "who wasn't running for office" -- even though by all accounts Palin is weighing a 2012 presidential bid - and hyped her as the mom of a soldier, her son Track having served in Iraq. Nevertheless, Palin sneaked in a thinly veiled snipe at Obama, saying "I must assume that you too, knowing that, no, we must not fundamentally transform America as some would want, we must restore America and restore her honor."
Obama wasn't on Beck's radar screen at all. He aimed at the the occupant of a higher office, saying the only way that America could break out of its current malaise was by looking to God for solutions, speaking frequently of looking to "divine providence." In keeping perhaps to the libertarian bent of the Tea Party-inspired audience, he never mentioned the need for citizens to work together but instead insisted: "I tell you that one man can change the world. That man or woman is you."
Beck also never overtly mentioned political issues like unemployment, even though the persistent high rates of joblessness was on the mind of many in the audience. Instead, reflecting his inward-looking and spiritual bent, he told the crowd to "connect with your family, yourself, and to your children." He added a minute later: "If you understand who God is, you will understand that you are one of his children."
The irony is that in a strange way, it may actually have been some form of "divine providence" that Beck choose Aug. 28 and to awkwardly honor King today -- because he did trigger a worthwhile debate and revealed the 180-contrast between his blind-faith-in-the-Almighty vision for restoration against the activist social gospel of Dr. King. That sharp difference was made clear about an hour-and-a-half after the Beck rally broke up, when thousands of marchers from a dueling event organized by the Rev. Al Sharpton and other civil rights activists circled past the Washington Monument and lingering Beck fans..
Pounding drums and chanting "no justice, no peace," the multi-racial parade of protesters was calling for concrete steps to do something to create jobs for those poor people that Beck claims are still "among the richest in the world." In other words, the very thing that an 81-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. would have been fighting for today, had he not been slain on a Memphis hotel balcony for pushing all Americans to take it to the limit to fight for social change.