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Zaitchik Triumphs With Glenn Beck Bio

Reported by Guest Blogger - June 27, 2010 -

By Aunty Em

After a month off, refreshed and recharged, I’m back to News Hounds a wiser and more learned Glenn Beck-watcher. That’s because I took for my beach reading “Common Nonsense; Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance,” the new book by Alexander Zaitchik. This is the first book to peel open the onion of conspiracy and pomposity that is Beck, revealing ever smaller conspiracies and larger pomposities. As Glenn tells us: we should know our history and the history of Beck reads like a conspiracist’s thriller, not unlike that of the Overton Window.

Most people, by now, know the broad outline of The Glenn Beck Story: How a former morning zoo shock jock, addicted to both booze and cocaine, cleaned himself up, moved into the Right Wing Radio Bidnezz and spun his new found street cred into a CNN Headline News tee vee show, which never caught fire. So he jumped ship to the (so called) Fox News Channel, where audience and host seemed made for each other, and his ratings exploded into the stratosphere, before falling back to earth recently. Love him, hate him, or indifferent about him (although the last category is probably the least populated), there’s no denying Glenn Beck is one of the most talked about media personalities of modern times. His influence is felt far and wide and, as Zaitchik argues, will be felt far into the future, no matter what happens in the fall elections.

Yet, unusually in this media culture where we already know everything about the upcoming estate fight of Dennis Hopper, Sandra Bullock’s divorce, and Kendra’s sex tape, the general public knows very little about what makes Glenn Beck click and why he’s become the Beckerhead’s source for their fractured history, fractured histrionics, and enough White House Conspiracy Theories to make a grown tee vee host cry.

That’s now all changed with “Common Nonsense.” Starting with the title, Zaitchik makes no bones about which side of the Beckian cultural divide he is on. However, it’s chock-a-block with fun, laugh-out-loud stories exposing Glenn Beck’s hypocrisy at every turn…with extensive footnotes. It’s all documented, either with interviews with former co-workers or 12 pages of notes at the end of the book. “Common Nonsense” is a rollicking rodeo clown ride through Glenn’s life, especially if you view Glenn’s shtick as comedy, like I do.

Zaitchick starts at the beginning, with Glenn’s 1964 birth to William and Mary, through his childhood, to the tragedy of his mother’s death. While some bloggers believe talk of this suicide should be ‘off the table,’ Zaitchik shows why it’s central to understanding Glenn Beck and, far more importantly, why we can’t even trust Beck’s own account. Despite Beck’s oft-repeated claims (and remember: it’s Glenn who put this topic ‘on the table’ in the first place), no documentation at the time mentions suicide as the cause of death. To be fair, this has been known to be covered up in small communities. Even the date Beck cites appears to be two years off, according to the documentation Zaitchik unearthed, indicating that the death occurred when Beck was at the age of 15 and not the younger, more tender age of 13 he often cites. No matter the truth of it, it’s what Beck believes to be true that really matters, Zaitchik contends.

“Common Nonsense” becomes more fun, and far more revealing, during the Florida Radio Wars as Beck, in his guise as morning zoo shock jock, displayed ever-increasing acts of cruelty towards his rivals. Some of that cruelty bordered on vandalism, like gluing shut the rival stations locks or bumper-stickering their logo on every car at a rival’s wedding or taunting a rival on air about his weight. However, the low came after a rival’s wife had a miscarriage. To quote Zaichik:

"A couple of days after [rival] Kelly’s wife had a miscarriage, Beck called her live on the air and says, ‘We hear you had a miscarriage,’” remembers Brad Miller, a former Y95 deejay and Clear Chanel programmer. “When Terry said yes, Beck proceeded to joke about how Bruce [Kelly] couldn’t do anything right—he can’t even have a baby. It was low class, adds Miller, who is now president of Open Stream Broadcasting. “There are places you don’t go.”

By Beck’s own admission, his bottom for cruelty came during the Terri Schiavo Affair. Zaitchik outlines how Beck first supported husband Michael’s right to allow his wife, Terri, to die with dignity. Beck eventually got religion, or something, and, in the end supported Terri’s parents in their suit to keep their daughter on life support. However, before he was for her life support he was against it, and only much later described an early “Schiavo-themed gag as ‘probably the most insensitive bit of all time.’” [The gag is oddly not described in the book, the only such omission I noted.]

I’ve always argued that Beck’s pranks, his whole ‘Eff Off’ attitude—right on down to his poke-in-the-Progressive’s-eye Fairey-themed Faith, Hope and Charity posters—speak to Beck’s being stuck at an emotional age right around the time of his mother’s death. Zaitchik also has him emotionally stunted, but has cleverly applied Beck’s immaturity into the realm of politics with two such beautiful and concise paragraphs, that I wish I had written them:

With the election of Barack Obama, Beck was confronted with a Democratic administration for the first time since he had become a politically sentient adult. It is partly because he possesses a child’s understanding of U.S. history and Democratic coalition politics that to him everything is shocking and new. That’s why his rants about the “tree of revolution” have the same feel as a freshman-year bong sessions devoted to the possibility that the universe is really just an atom, and within that atom another entire universe.

Showman, opportunist, manipulator, cuckoo bird and innocent—Glenn Beck contains a multitude. If he were easy to unlock with any one key, any single characteristic, he wouldn’t be where he is. He’d be no fun at all.

And, that’s just in the introduction. For more than 250 pages Zaitchik makes this character called Glenn Beck a whole lot of fun to read about. This is a book that will start conversations with those on the beach towel next to you, not all of them rooted in reality. I’ve discovered his audience likes to talk about him and credits Beck with being the only one willing to expose the hidden Socialist agenda of the current administration. The people who don’t want to talk about Beck on the Beach (that might make a nice name for a cocktail) are those who have had all the arguments before and have tired of shouting their displeasure. Oddly enough, those who didn’t want to talk about Beck interrupted my reading more than those who did. However, these kinds of paradoxical inversions tend to happen only in Beck World, where everything is upside down.

As a loyal Beck-watcher (he's my comedy hero), I know more about him than the average viewer. Yet there was still much new in the book for me to marvel at, that I hadn’t known before. The casual Beck viewer will find new information at almost every turn of the page and either delight, or recoil in revulsion, at the antics of the Fox News Conspiracy Theorist-in-Chief.

However, there are two bones I have to pick with Zaitchik. Towards the end of the book the author goes into what Beck is to Teabaggery and what Teabaggery is to Glenn Beck. Necessarily Zaitchik does a bit of crystal ball-reading, projecting into the future what Beck’s Restoring Honor Renascence Festival will mean for the country. In some cases events have overtaken the author. While Zaitchik predicts the continued lockstep of Teabaggers with Glenn Beck, how could he have predicted that Beck would sell his soul to Dick Armey’s Freedom Works? However, in most cases, considering the early lead time of a book published in June for the beach blanket bingo crowd, Zaitchik has pegged the ongoing Beck and Teabagger talking points perfectly.

The second caveat is not such a small error either. The Epilogue, called “The Bullet Train and the Rocking Chair,” seems rushed with glaring errors. It begins with Beck’s announcement of The Plan in (at?) The Villages, Florida, the day after I introduced myself to him. It takes in the big announcement that will culminate in the upcoming Restoring Freedom Festival on (divinely) the same day as the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Then Zaichick makes the only real blunder of the book. From pages 256-257:

A few days later, sitting on his old Tampa studio, Beck returned the subject of “restoration.” The inspiration for the march and its operative metaphor, he revealed, was his grandfathers favorite rocking chair.

The ghost of Beck’s grandfather is a regular character on his shows. Beck’s fans know that the old man was a gritty Iowa farmer, “a Depression person, not a rich guy,” with calloused hands that never once took a handout. Grandfather Beck had simple tastes, a profound sense of honor, and didn’t take any lip. Beck claims he inherited the old rocking chair in which his granddad spent his adulthood watching The Lawrence Welk Show. For years, Beck told his audience, he was afraid to touch the chair. But recently he decided to call an expert and have it restored. Beck discussed watching in awe as the wood was sanded and refinished, its parts reinforced and made structurally sound once again—like a nation born anew.

Staring at the refurbished piece of furniture, Beck experienced an epiphany. As he described it that morning in Tampa, “We need to restore the Constitution, the way I restored that rocking chair.” Thus was born the vision behind Beck’s march on Washington: The Republic as a divinely inspired episode of This Old House.

I certainly don’t want to spoil the ending for you, because “Common Nonsense” is such a great book to read, but there’s all kinds of wrong in those 3 paragraphs. While Zaitchik gets the point of the story right, the episode comes off as the work of a very sloppy researcher (whether the author or someone else) trying to finish the book on a tight deadline.

If only he had called me, or read my column at the very least. As I make clear on my contemporary reportage on the subject of Glenn’s Grandpappy’s Chair: 1): The chair is, in essence a bar room chair, not a rocking chair at all; 2). Beck wasn’t exactly afraid to touch the chair as much as he let it fall into ruin and then beat himself up over his terrible stewardship of his grandfather’s legacy; and 3). His wife surprised him with the refurbished chair, so Beck couldn’t have watched the chair being sanded and refinished.

Having reached the end of the book and finding such a glaring error, I went back through the rest of the book a second time with a fine-tooth comb. I looked at all the clips and source material, where found, and compared it to “Common Nonsense.” Happily this was the only mistake I could find. It’s still a fun each read, which will give you a lot of insight into the Glenn Beck phenomenon, as Teabaggers everywhere gear up for the August Woodstock of their generation(s).

Read it on the beach for extra fun and watch the arguments begin.

Common Nonsense; Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance
By Alexander Zaitchik
John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
USBN 978-0-470-55739-6

With all my love,
Aunty Em

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