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Critic's Notebook: Glenn Beck says goodbye

Now-former Fox News personality Glenn Beck closed "The Glenn Beck Program" Thursday night with what amounted to an hour-long monologue --  technically 42 minutes, minus commercials, by his own estimate. (There were clips, and he exchanged a few words with his crew, but none of them were miked, and his was essentially the only voice heard.) To the extent that I can make it out, I don't hold with Beck's brand of what looks like politics, but which is actually something more amorphously free-ranging, a vision, a view, a knitting of not always connected facts, faux facts and buzzwords into a worried, world-entangling web. But as a television personality there is no denying him, even as he cuts loose, or has been cut loose, or both, from his high-profile, cable-TV pulpit-playground.

With his charts and chalkboards, his Pagliacci tears and intimations of apocalypse, he is as a performer much closer to an old-fashioned TV preacher than to any other cable news personality, with the exception perhaps of Keith Olbermann, who has also recently undergone a change of venue subsequent to a spate of controversy. (Both advance Howard Beale, the angry man of "Network," as a touchstone; both paint their departures as a step toward greater freedom of expression.) Beck is a veteran of drive-time and talk radio and knows something about creating and keeping an audience, yet I don't think of him as cynical; like Howard Stern, whose unembarrassed self-loathing has been a major source of his attraction, it's his sincerity that makes him fascinating. Content aside, he is the sort of unaccountable, improvisational figure to which television affords ever less space, and while some will regard his going as the quashing of a dangerous flame, I think of him as one of a dying breed and in some way worth cherishing.

Indeed, he is proud of the amount of talking he does, and how much of it pours from the top of his head. Comparing "The Glenn Beck Program" to Jon Stewart's "Daily Show," he noted the amount of time each host spent on screen -- not pointing out that his own show was twice as long as Stewart's -- and the number of writers each relied upon (Stewart's 15 to Beck's two). This is apples and oranges, of course: Stewart is a comedian whose subject is current events and how they're reported; Beck, who said Thursday, "This show has become a movement -- it's not a TV show, and that's why it doesn’t belong on television anymore," is a demagogue who sometimes couches his rhetoric in comedy. Stewart would never declare, as did Beck, "I am determined to my last breath to fix this country one person, one family, one child, one entrepreneur, one town at a time; we will preserve man's freedom one state, one country, one planet at a time."

Over the hour he recalled to his audience their hand-in-hand awakening to such thriller-named phenomena as the Hindenburg Omen, the Kondratiev Wave and the Overton Window; to "unions and their roots in communism"; and to the hidden meaning of "social justice, a phrase that is so dangerous because it can be used for good." He looked at his money. (Andrew Jackson: "Indian-killer, manifest destiny.") Not exactly addressing his having called Obama a "racist" or his comparison of Reform Judaism to "radicalized Islam" -- for which he apologized -- he indicated in various ways that he is sympathetic to African Americans and Jews: They had done, at the suggestion of a black crew member, an episode with African American conservatives ("We didn't just do one show, we did two shows -- we followed up with it"), and he is headed to Israel at any minute to plumb the source of that people's courage.

Though he has lost some advertisers and some viewers -- and some major markets for his radio show -- Beck offers on his website a lot of charts to support the idea that his problems in the marketplace are proportionate to the woes of the industry at large. Part of his last hour was devoted to making it clear that his ratings were hale and that he had not been fired -- indeed, he will reportedly produce occasional content for Fox and its digital iteration -- and that, in fact, he had long ago predicted his own departure. He had left "breadcrumbs," because "I knew what the media would say," and as evidence played a video from last year in which he recalled a conversation with a "trusted adviser" to whom he mentioned a growing desire to move on. To everything there is a season, the adviser replied; Beck should "continue -- continue for a season." And so he determined to "stay until the changing of the seasons."  Or now.

Whatever else "The Glenn Beck Program" has been about, in its 2 1/2-year run -- it began, not coincidentally, with the Obama administration -- and as much as the host has insisted that it is not about Glenn Beck, it has always been about Glenn Beck: his passions, his education, his revelations. By playing himself down, he plays himself up. He is the "son of a baker," sometimes "just the dumbest guy" and "no different from you -- I have never in my my life been the cool kid, ever -- I mean it was cool to be the cool kid for about two minutes."

Not surprisingly, the hour's most compelling passage was the most personal: As he looked out over New York City from his New York City apartment, he recalled, having just met Bono backstage at "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," which he has seen many times -- having become the cool kid -- he pondered all that he had and all that he might leave behind and was suddenly "overwhelmed with the feeling if you don't leave now you will not leave with your soul. As a guy who has traded my soul before I will not trade it again. Never want anything too much, it will destroy you." Just what he needed to leave, and needed not to want, was not quite clear to me -- New York, Fox News, cable television, power? Possibly he has not sorted that out yet himself.

But I would not cry for Glenn Beck. Like most pop-cultural sensations who blow up fast and big, he is finding his level, and the fans who stick, who follow him to his new home -- the streaming Web station GBTV at Glennbeck.com, where his show will double in length to two hours, five days a week -- will form a more ardent, harder core. You lose some cachet, I suppose, moving from a national network to the sort of private enterprise any citizen with the time and money can set up, but "Internet-only" is becoming less of a pejorative, and the venue suits his subject, his style and his crowd.

To critics celebrating what they imagined to be his demise, Beck had this to say: "You will pray for the time when I was only on the air for one hour every day." (I thought of Obi-Wan Kenobi: "You can´t win, Darth. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.") To his rebel-force viewers -- "we take on every single person we've been told not to take on, from the anarchists to the president to the Republicans to George Soros" -- he said, "You are the answer," and advised them to take up their vaguely defined fight not with hate but with love.

In the show's final moments, Beck had his stagehands raised the shades that had closeted his studio from the street outside, and light poured in.

-- Robert Lloyd

 
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