ORLANDO – In front of about 8,000 of his most fanatical followers, Glenn Beck - king of all right-wing media and leading designer of America's newest paranoid style - drove home his main point about the nation's political crisis by awkwardly wielding a sledgehammer across the stage.
But don't get the wrong idea or anything - especially not after a week of jangled nerves for the nation's body politic, with Democratic Congress members who voted for a massive health-care overhaul reporting death threats, bricks through office windows and other vandalism.
Actually, Beck - whose teary meltdowns, sarcastic rants and White House witch hunts have made the Fox News Channel talker an icon of the tea party movement - used the sledgehammer as part of a metaphoric plea for a Gandhi-and-Martin-Luther-King-inspired nonviolent resistance to what he claims is the government's march toward socialism.
"Get God on your side, and then pick up a hammer," Beck said Saturday at a tent-revival-meets-politics rally that nearly packed the University of Central Florida basketball arena. Quoting Gandhi, he took the hammer to an anvil onstage and said: "With nonviolence, take your hammer and pound that truth every day, and everything that doesn't fit, toss it out! We have the truth . . . With nonviolence, be the anvil of truth every single day!"
The Orlando rally was the first of at least two heavily promoted, daylong American Revival events featuring the TV-and-radio star and some of his favorite pundits, designed to answer a question that might have seemed ludicrous just a year ago but which on Saturday attracted followers from up and down the Eastern Seaboard, including the Philadelphia region:
Now that Glenn Beck has captured everyone's attention, just where exactly is he trying to take America, anyway?
Beck plans to slowly roll out the answer over the course of 2010. He'll be publishing a not-surprisingly apocalyptic political thriller this spring, hosting an audacious rally at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial in late August - on the 47th anniversary of King's "I Have a Dream" speech there - and has claimed he'll release another book right before the fall elections with a 100-year plan for reviving America.
The conservative talk hero - whose rise to national prominence included a short stint at Philadelphia's WPHT in the early 2000s - offered a jarring glimpse inside that plan on Saturday when he said that he'll unveil an expert-advised plan in two weeks for the federal budget that would slash government spending by a whopping 40 to 50 percent.
"We're going to develop the way out for the United States of America," Beck said. "Before you clap, realize that I'm going to piss off almost every single person in America. Because we can't afford all the stuff and that means all of us are going to lose something that we love." He said he believed that this proposed "massive reduction of spending" would allow tax rates to be cut to 12 percent and make America a global beacon for investment.
None of the budget-decimating talk seemed to alarm the Beck faithful - a group that is predominantly over 50 and white, and heavy on retirees, the jobless and military veterans who now receive government benefits like Medicare or unemployment checks. Many had traveled a great distance or at great expense to sit inside a concrete arena for seven hours on a perfectly cloudless, 80-degree day in this city of theme parks and palm trees - even with a steep top ticket price of $120, plus fees.
In fact, South Jersey resident Steve Hynes, 56, who works in an Ocean City market, thought it was so important to be in the arena with Beck that he boarded a 6 a.m. flight in Atlantic City, took a cab straight to the event and then raced back to the airport before Beck's keynote address had stopped echoing around the arena. He said that the tea party in New Jersey hasn't been assertive enough for him, and that "I want to do something that's going to work."
Joseph Cerniglia, a former Vermont winemaker who retired four years ago to an upscale island community off Savannah, Ga., said that he was so moved by a Beck TV monologue Thursday night that he and his companion hopped in their Mercedes for the 4 1/2-hour drive here.
"It was like I was looking into his eyes and he was looking into mine," said Cerniglia, who came down to a motel breakfast bar at 7 a.m. and immediately asked for the TV to be switched to Fox News. "I like a man who can cry and not be ashamed," he said. "I do it myself, sometimes."
But while some fans like Cerniglia respond to Beck's melodramatics, other followers are just plain angry.
Perhaps none more so than Phillis Kluft, 71, who raised four kids as a single mom in East Haven, Conn., and moved six years ago to The Villages, Fla., a retiree-laden epicenter of Beckmania where she is a leader of the Tri-County Tea Party of Florida. Kluft said she believes that supporters of President Obama are mainly seeking handouts from Washington.
"I saved money for my old age and didn't go on a vacation or buy a new car. It really galls me that these people sit on their ass and expect other people to take care of them!" the grandmother said, her voice rising in intensity, then adding to whoops of approval in Section 107: "I am so disgusted with this Obama bulls---!"
Many Beck followers share his apocalyptic fears that American society is bordering on a catastrophic meltdown. Early in the event, Beck himself declared from the stage: "If we don't face the truth right now, we'll be dead in five years; this country can't survive." During his keynote speech, Beck also advised his fans to stockpile food. "I am incredibly prepared," he said.
Beck's favorite economist, Columbia University adjunct professor David Buckner, had asked people in the audience to text in their personal outlooks for the economy, and 80 percent said they were pessimistic. But despite the gloomy worldview, almost every attendee also voiced great resentment over media accounts portraying Beck fans as either racist or potentially prone to violence.
An outlier was Mike Freese, a Vietnam veteran, retired Florida alcohol-enforcement agent and amateur artist who greeted arriving fans with a large rendering of a majorly wrinkled Nancy Pelosi in a bikini, reading "Obamacare Can't Stop This," getting belly laughs from passers-by. Freese, in a "Git-R-Done" camouflage baseball cap, showed a reporter a deck of playing cards he'd made showing Obama as the joker, holding signs linking Obama to Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, among others. "I don't care if they think it is [racist] or not," he said, when pressed about it. "They call it racist anyway."
But from the stage, the seven-hour event was little about Obama - and a lot about God. The kickoff speaker was David Barton - a leader in the recent fight to push conservative and Christian themes into Texas textbooks - and Beck's own stage appearances, including a long closing speech, were larded with references to finding Jesus and his 12-step recovery from alcoholism in the 1990s.
Indeed, much of Beck's American Revival was just plain revival, with Beck playing Billy Graham or the fictional Elmer Gantry, depending on your view of the divisive political entertainer.
"Faith gives us an opportunity to start all over again," said Beck, who at one point spoke sprawled out on the floor of the stage, re-enacting his lowest moment with the bottle. Before the lunch break, a fan - later reported to be OK - fell in the upper deck and required medical attention, and as doctors in the house raced to the spot, Beck and Buckner led the throng in a softly sung "Amazing Grace."
It was a moment he re-enacted when he took the stage for his keynote, choking back copious tears as he said, "I love you guys."
At one point in his talk, a fan hollered out from the floor seats: "Preach it, Glenn!"
But any good preacher leaves the audience wanting more, and so the months between now and Beck's Lincoln Memorial rally in late August will reveal whether an emotional rabble-rouser in the mode of the 1976 movie "Network" 's Howard Beale can convert his mad-as-hell fans into political action.
An early hint may come in June, when Beck publishes his book The Overton Window, which he described as "a story of America in a time much like today where the people are confused," with a government in crisis and the rise of a citizens' group called the Founders Keepers, which "leads to a battle and a civil war, and life is upside-down planetwide."