There's something audacious about a movement nourished by anger toward Washington pouring into the nation's capital to drench itself in the city's iconography, but Glenn Beck isn't much for subtle gestures. On Saturday, Aug. 28, the high prophet of conservative populism will headline a rally he's cast as an "iconic event" that may be remembered as "a new generation's defining moment." It may not live up to that lofty billing, but the Restoring Honor rally will showcase the energy coursing through the conservative movement just weeks before the Republican Party tries to topple Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. Capital authorities estimate that a crowd of perhaps more than 100,000 people will pack the National Mall to hear Beck and Sarah Palin, the brightest stars in the conservative firmament, deliver keynote speeches.
Already among the most polarizing forces in politics, Beck has invited additional controversy by holding the rally at the Lincoln Memorial on the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. After months of strained debates over race triggered by allegations of prejudice within the Tea Party movement and capped by Shirley Sherrod's ouster from the USDA the timing of the event has rankled civil rights leaders and skeptics who say that wrapping Tea Party fervor in the civil rights movement's legacy is a cheap stunt. "When we heard about Glenn Beck, it was puzzling," said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who will commemorate the anniversary of the famous speech nearby. "Because if you read Dr. King's speech, it just doesn't gel with what Mr. Beck or Mrs. Palin are representing." Beck, who has accused President Obama of harboring "a deep-seated hatred of white people," at first downplayed the symbolism of the rally date, then claimed the coincidence was "divine providence." Dr. Alveda King, the civil rights giant's niece and a conservative activist, will be among the event's speakers. "Uncle Martin's legacy is big enough to go around," she wrote this week.
While Tea Party activists and other Beck acolytes are busing supporters to the capital, Beck calls the gathering an apolitical event geared to support U.S. troops and others "who embody our nation's founding principles of integrity, truth and honor." Speakers were required to sign a statement promising not to use their soapbox for political purposes. Proceeds from the rally generated by fundraising plugs on its website and a donation-by-text-message campaign will benefit the Special Operations Warrior Foundation (SOWF), a charity that has provided more than 260 college scholarships to children of fallen special-ops personnel. "I would like people to stay open-minded and come to the rally and see what it is before they criticize it," says SOWF spokeswoman Edie Rosenthal. SOWF expects the event's logistics to cost more than $1 million but still hopes to reap $4 million to $5 million from it. The publicity kindled by the partnership with Beck has been a boon for the tiny organization, which employs just eight full-time staffers. "I applaud anyone who stands up and says, 'I want to do something for the fallen,' and that's what Glenn is doing," Rosenthal says.
But the line between patriotism and politics seems destined to blur, not least because it's hard to envision Sarah Palin passing up the chance to skewer her opponents before a crowd of this size. Most Tea Party summits are speckled with anti-Obama signs and "Don't Tread on Me" flags, but activists were asked to keep their political paraphernalia stowed away on Saturday. Some Tea Party leaders have grumbled that Beck is harnessing the gathering as a self-promotion vehicle. "I call it Beckapalooza because it seems to be all about Beck," Andrew Dodge, a Tea Party coordinator from Maine, told Politico.
Even if participants hew to the rally's stated purpose, they'll have plenty of time to brandish their knives over the weekend. FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy group that trains Tea Party activists and is a paid sponsor of Beck's radio show, is holding a summit Friday to introduce voters to the political candidates the organization is backing in the midterm elections. On Sunday, the Tea Party Patriots, one of the movement's largest umbrella organizations, will hold a rally to promote the repeal of the health care reform law. Adam Brandon, vice president of communications for FreedomWorks, chalked up the murmurs of dissension over Beck's role in the movement to the status anxiety that attends the ascension of a new crop of conservatives. "We're pushing aside some of the conservative old bulls," he says. "What the conservative movement is, what it stands for, is changing pretty rapidly."
With reporting by Kate Pickert