In the course of his remarkable rise from cable sideshow to Fox News superstar, Glenn Beck has never really faced a serious challenge.
To both men and women, his opponents only made him stronger, strengthening his every-guy-against-the-world image and putting some meat on the bones of his near paranoid ravings about dark forces aligning against liberty, and himself. When cornered, he only became more vulnerable, more tearful and, at least to his fervent followers, more likable.
But on Tuesday night, Beck faced a foe unlike any other, a pasty, disgraced former one-term Democratic Congressman from New York, Eric Massa, who had resigned only hours earlier amid an ethics inquiry into allegations that he groped and sexually harassed some of his male employees over the years. Massa, who has maintained that his main reason for not running for re-election in the fall is a recurrence of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, arrived at the Fox studios with an X-ray of his chest and a photo album of pictures from his Navy service that, he announced, "looks like an orgy in Caligula." "I'm going to show you a lot more than tickle fights," Massa told Beck, leaving the host, for a precious moment, speechless.
Massa had come on Fox to out-Beck Glenn Beck. Armed with the very same weapons a deep sense of victimhood, outrage at the powers that be and remarkable personal candor the Representative delivered a dizzying confessional. He admitted to sexless groping and tickling of his staff, sending inappropriate text messages and otherwise failing to behave like a Congressman should, all as he made his case that his fellow Democrats had really gone after him because of his previous no vote on health care reform. "I can't fight this. I can't fight cancer," Massa announced, in a classic stream-of-consciousness ramble. "I can't fight the White House. I can't fight the Democratic Party."
Beck, who is used to controlling the gravitational force of victimhood around him, kept interrupting to point out that he was a bigger target of even greater forces than Massa. "I have two unauthorized biographies coming out against me in the spring," Beck said at one point. Minutes later, Beck went even further. "Do you realize my family is at stake?" he said. "You've got a little scandal with your children in college. I've got one for all time now, because I am not going to resign. I'm not going to back down. I have come to a place where I believe at some point the system will destroy me."
But Beck could not compete with the oddity of the sympathy card Massa kept pulling. He appeared frustrated that Massa wasn't revealing any more sinister plots afoot in the nation's capital, and he got visibly annoyed when Massa tried to take some measure of responsibility for his actions and attempted to walk back some of his more heated rhetoric against White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.
And to make things worse, when Massa turned from discussing his own woes to the machinations of Washington, he offered ideas that have no place in Fox News's tightly regulated framework. Massa suggested that Beck and other Americans demand "campaign finance reform" to curb the corruption on Capitol Hill. Beck, who has called such proposals a "huge mistake," put his hand over his mouth, as if he were holding back an upset stomach. Massa, who has opposed Obama's health reform because it is not liberal enough, told Beck that he should stop calling people names like "socialist" and "communist." "You can be a progressive and be a fiscal conservative," Massa then explained, as Beck lost control of his own program.
In the past Beck's opponents, serious people who operated by the regular order of public debate, played it straight and posed little challenge. When the White House came after Beck, he produced a videotape that painted its communications director as an agent of Chairman Mao. (She wasn't.) When a liberal group, Color of Change, sparked an ad boycott of Beck's show, he organized a public campaign that pressured the group's co-founder, Van Jones, to resign from government service. (He did.) Beck even battled Bill O'Reilly, the network's reigning king of self-importance, to a sort of schoolyard draw in regular sparring matches on their respective shows.
But in Massa, Beck found a sort of liberal doppelgänger, a mesmerizing train wreck of a man who was impossible to undercut in the classic fashion. To many conservative allies of Beck, it probably didn't come as too much of a surprise. In recent days, prominent Republicans like Bill Kristol had expressly warned Beck and others about coming to Massa's defense just because he was alleging dirty tricks by the Obama White House. "We shouldn't get into the business of being pro-Massa just because we are antihealth care," Kristol said on Monday on Fox. The ruling talk-radio king, Rush Limbaugh, spent much of Tuesday making clear that he would not be tied to Massa, after spending much of Monday praising Massa's revelations about Democratic Party politics. "Anybody who embraces this guy is in big trouble," Limbaugh said.
The Massa controversy came as the Republicans have been grappling with the question of just how far to go in attacking Obama and the Democrats. Many conservatives were critical of a cartoonish, ugly line of attack the Republican National Committee pushed in a campaign memo, and Liz Cheney was scolded for suggesting that lawyers who had represented terrorism detainees shouldn't be allowed to occupy high-ranking positions at the Justice Department.
But Beck, who thrives on publicity stunts and controversy, could not resist engaging with Massa. On Tuesday morning, during his radio show, Beck compared the Democrat to both a mobster wanting to testify against John Gotti and a potential Soviet spy wanting to "cross over to our side." The conservative blogger Michelle Malkin called into the show to tell Beck he was making a mistake. "This guy deserves 60 minutes of our time, really?" Malkin asked.
Beck would not budge. But as those 60 minutes came to an end on Tuesday afternoon, the rabble-rouser seemed to recognize that he had fallen into a trap. The Beck big top has room for only one carnival barker at a time. "I think I have wasted your time," Beck said, staring into the camera at an audience he once spent weeks telling about fanciful FEMA prison camps. "I think this is the first time I have wasted an hour of your time."