For those of you not mesmerized by the faux balloon boy story, here's my tweaked and expanded Sunday print column:
Ever so slowly, sensible Republicans and conservatives are finally marshaling the courage to confront the unhinged broadcasters in their midst – and not a moment too soon, given the fact that these loons now seem to be running the asylum.
The GOP has lately made gains with its anti-Obama incantations, but the fact remains that the party has no affirmative unifying message and no national leader. As a result, various warlords – Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Michael Savage, and other marketers of venom – continue to fill the breach, in ways that are profoundly unhelpful to the Republican image.
How helpful is Beck, after all, when he morphs into Joe McCarthy on Fox News, and attempts to red-bait a top Obama aide by painting her as a communist sympathizer in thrall to Mao Zedong? Last week, Beck characterized Anita Dunn as a "fan of a guy who killed millions of people." He then aired a video clip that showed Dunn quoting Mao during a June speech. Shocking! What Beck naturally neglected to tell his credulous viewers is that politicians of all stripes have been quoting Mao for years. Such as: "In the words of Chairman Mao, it's always darkest before it's totally black." (That was John McCain). Such as: "Mao said politics is war without bloodshed. Clearly there are some metaphors that sit nicely with politics." (That was Christian conservative leader Ralph Reed.)
Most prominent Republicans are still too cowed to call out Beck for what he truly is – a demagogue who is nurturing paranoia - because they confuse microphone power with political power. (Can the talk jocks deliver votes? They probably can't deliver a pizza.) Nevertheless, some are finally speaking out. They don't want the conservative cause to be hijacked by tinfoil-hatted broadcasters who believe, for instance, that the symbol on the back of the dime was a fascist plot hatched by Democrat Woodrow Wilson in 1916.
David Frum, the ex-Bush speechwriter who helped coin the term "Axis of Evil," got fed up with Beck not long ago when the Fox News superstar sought to defame an Obama nominee by insisting on the air that this nominee – in real life, a free-market economist – favors the execution of retarded children and wants to give monkeys the right to sue. (I kid you not.) Frum assailed Beck for "recklessness and political cowardice," but he was only warming up.
"We conservatives are submitting our movement to some of the most unscrupulous people in American life," Frum wrote on his blog. "This submission disgraces conservatism, discredits Republicans, and damages the country. It's beyond time for conservatives who know better to…emancipate ourselves from leadership by the most stupid, the most cynical, and the most truthless."
Peter Wehner, another ex-Bush speechwriter and a veteran conservative think-tanker, seconded Frum earlier this fall: "Beck seems to be a roiling mix of fear, resentment, and anger – the antithesis of Ronald Reagan....At a time when we should aim for intellectual depth, for tough-minded and reasoned arguments, for good cheer and calm purpose, rather than erratic behavior, he is not the kind of figure conservatives whould embrace or cheer on."
Steven Hayward, another think-tank conservative and author of a weighty tome about the Reagan era, wrote earlier this month that the talk jocks are marketing "frivolous paranoia as the face of conservatism," that they have "dumbed down the movement" – especially Beck, whose "flirtation with conspiracy theories (are) a debilitating dead end."
Other conservative critics are alarmed by the jocks' impertinent 'tude. Former Bush strategist Mark McKinnon recently denounced radio host Mark Levin for "spewing streams of hate-filled venom at Obama that were jaw dropping." Charles Murray, an eminent conservative author and scholar, lamented recently that these broadcasters have become "far too much of the public face of the Right today – crudely sarcastic when they are not being angry, mean-spirited, and often embarrassingly ignorant."
But it's not just the tone that worries these conservative critics.
Far worse is the fact that Beck and some of his brethren are just as capable of skewering the GOP, and inspiring fans to do the same. Beck freely declares no allegiance to the Republican party. At times he seems to be a libertarian (who thinks that both parties are guilty of big government),; at other times, he seems to be a contrarian crank in the populist tradition of Ross Perot.. As he said in August, "I hate both sides equally…I'm ready to throw them all out."
And a few weeks back, he stunned many Republicans by declaring in an interview, "I think John McCain would have been worse for the country than Barack Obama." Why? Because "I think McCain is a weird progressive, like Theodore Roosevelt was." Beck's assessment should not have been too surprising, since McCain sometimes appears to favor a robust federal government (at least with respect to military muscularity), just as TR did. But he nonetheless has attracted some rare criticism from elected Republicans.
Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina senator and faithful McCain acolyte, has twice blasted Beck in recent weeks. First he made fun of the fact that Beck recently got weepy on the air ("Only in America can you make that much money crying"), thus prompting Beck to attack the Republican on his radio show (Lindsey Graham hating my guts is probably the highest honor I've ever received").
Then Graham defended his pal McCain, telling Fox News that Beck "doesn't represent the Republican party…When a person says he represents conservatism and that the country's better off with Barack Obama than John McCain, that sort of ends the debate for me as to how much more I'm going to listen."
Graham was seconded the other day by a fellow South Carolina Republican, congressman Bob Inglis. At a town hall meeting, one of the usual screamers invoked Beck's TV show – whereupon Inglis replied, "Here's what I suggest: Turn that television off." He later added, "I've come away just so disappointed with (his) negativity. The America that Glenn Beck seems to see is a place where we should all be fearful…It sure does sell soap, but it sure does a disservice to America."
But these conservative critics are still in the minority; indeed, Graham and Inglis lately have been heckled by Beck fans at town hall meetings. The more typical conservative response was offered recently by commentator Jonah Goldberg, who insisted that Beck, Limbaugh and the others are good for the cause because they're lots of fun; as he argued, "making conservatism popular means making it less stuffy and intellectual and more accessible."
Well, Joe McCarthy made conservatism seem less stuffy and intellectual back in the early '50s – until the red-baiter went too far and launched smears against the U.S Army. And radio host Charles Coughlin popularized anti-Roosevelt sentiment in the late '30s – until he labeled FDR's agenda "the Jew Deal" and voiced sympathy for the Nazis.
Few conservatives challenged either of those demagogues in their day. And few conservatives today have uttered a peep about ascendent radio jock Alex Jones, whose post-Beck shtick is that Obama is fronting for a global totalitarian conspiracy. Jones' pitch has gotten more than four million hits on YouTube. Will conservatives brave these numbers and stand up for sanity?