"I don't understand it, but this is where we're going," said Glenn Beck, as he recounted his inspiration to rally people in Washington, D.C. And for those looking on as he spoke on Saturday before the Lincoln Memorial, a few stairs down from where Martin Luther King Jr. told America about his dream 47 years ago, it was easy to know exactly how Beck felt.
Tens of thousands had gathered along the reflecting pool in the name of "restoring honor" the name and theme of the rally yet no one could quite specify what that meant. And though the conservative media personality was full of passionate exhortations for his audience, most of Beck's instructions weren't exactly intuitive. (How does one, for example, "wrap truth in boldness"?) All present agreed that America needed to be rebuilt, but with no list of grievances, no Vietnam-sized conflict to end, no particular right to extend, it remained unclear what the blueprint should look like.
One attendee from Ohio said they gathered to spread a message of "respect for all religious and political parties." Another said the day was largely about getting away from computers and talking to people face to face. A third was more blunt: "We're here to unite as long as you believe in the United States of America, the Constitution, conservative values and God." At its heart, the day was more a celebration of Christianity and the military than anything else. As Beck said, "It has nothing to do with politics, it has everything to do with God."
Looking out upon the carpet of Stars and Stripesclad people spilling out from around the pool, across nearby fields and up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Beck went for an old chestnut: the field-of-dreams reference. "If you build it, they will come," he said as he greeted his jubilant audience and they had come in earnest. A person wearing a "Buck Ofama" button, sparkly American-flag hat and "Don't Tread on Me" T-shirt was by no means overdressed.
Beck went on stage following a mixed-race a cappella group who sang the national anthem, and his effort to include a heterogeneous lineup although his crowd was homogeneous (read: white, Christian, conservative) continued to show. There were rabbis and preachers, black people and white people, immigrants and Native Americans on the stage all amid two women everyone was particularly excited to see: Sarah Palin and Alveda King, an antiabortion activist and niece of Martin Luther King Jr.
As Beck got ready to pay tribute to three veterans, he explained that he didn't want a military member or mere politician to introduce them: he wanted a mom. That introduction for "Mama Grizzly" Palin, who derives much of her clout on political issues from her personal history, was apt, and she delivered to a thrilled audience with her usual brand of hokey sass. "Say what you want about me," she told them before recounting the men's stories, "but I raised a combat vet!"
King's presence was hotly anticipated given the controversial anniversary scheduling of Beckapalooza. Although Beck said the date was a coincidence then later dubbed it divine providence many civil rights activists, such as the Rev. Al Sharpton, had taken umbrage to what they saw as Beck's appropriation of the day for causes incompatible with MLK's vision. (An online campaign to declare that "Glenn Beck is not Martin Luther King Jr." gained more than 30,000 electronic signatures in the two days before the event, and Sharpton led his own march to celebrate the speech right alongside Beck's event.)
If the scheduling had been an accident, it was one Beck was happy to exploit. Palin first invoked MLK, and the Rev. C.L. Jackson, the recipient of one of Beck's new badges of merit for faith, charity and hope, referred to "the ministry of Dr. Glenn Beck." References to dreams were in no short supply: there was a dream-themed video montage preceding King's entrance, and Beck eventually championed the theme too, telling the audience that he related more to MLK than any other historical giant. Although attendees largely left their 2010 candidate gear at home, as per Beck's instructions to keep things apolitical, King took some political positions against gay marriage and abortion, for example much lauded by those present, as she spoke about her own dream to see a country less divided.
But even her speech seemed less notable than the unbridled, happy patriotism of the huge crowd Beck had summoned. One woman calmly sang "Amazing Grace" under her breath as she moved through the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd at DMV-line speed. Men in revolutionary-era garb abounded. When Beck told people to text a $10 donation to the event's pet charity, the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, cell phones were quickly abuzz. What remains to be seen is where else that energy gets channeled. "I am excited to see what happens in the next election," says Dennis Librandi, a rallier from North Carolina. "That's what I'm waiting for."