Glenn Beck seems omnipresent. If he's not gathering followers on the Washington Mall, he's blasting the "socialist-progressive" Obama administration on his hour-long Fox News program or his three-hour long radio show. In between, he somehow makes time for the Glenn Beck University, his news site The Blaze, his public appearances with Sarah Palin and Bill O'Reilly or on tour, touting one of his many books. One man who has been following Beck's journey from alcoholic to small-time radio personality to political juggernaut is Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank. In his new book Tears of a Clown, Milbank theorizes that when Beck says the Constitution is hanging by a thread, he's actually channeling Mormon founder Joseph Smith, who preached that the church's leaders would eventually be needed to save the constitution. Among other things, Milbank discusses with TIME the Beck phenomenon and conjectures whether we'll see him running for President in 2012.
After Beck's Washington rally in August, Chris Wallace of Fox News Sunday asked Beck, "What are you?" I wanted to ask you the same question: what is he?
Beck is a movement leader. I think he goes beyond being an entertainer, beyond being a TV or radio commentator. He's never seen himself as a journalist. But I think he sees himself as the leader, or certainly a leader, of the Tea Party movement.
How genuine is he really?
It's impossible to know, but we have clues. We know that he didn't always cry this way. We know that he was once a self-described liberal who was pro-choice. We know he had a different position on TARP then he does now [Beck originally said the Troubled Assets Relief Program should be larger]. So, who knows? Only Glenn Beck knows that.
You've said you're fascinated by him. Why?
Love him, or hate him, the man is brilliant. How can you not admire a guy who went from a horrible addiction to becoming perhaps the most dominant force in American culture and American politics. I have respect for the way he has been able to see where the country is going, where the discourse is going and get out in front of it. I just have serious questions about how genuine his beliefs are. I think Glenn Beck is a charlatan, but he's the best charlatan there is.
You weren't able to interview Beck for your book, which means you had to watch and listen to a lot of Beck for research. At your peak, how much Beck were you consuming daily?
I had a researcher who did a lot of Beck-watching for me. The doctors say she'll be ok in a few months if we keep up the electroshock. All of his Fox broadcasts and most of his CNN broadcasts are transcribed. So I've read virtually every word that's come out of his mouth on air.
You write about a man who shot and killed three police officers after apparently being incensed to action by one of Beck's anti-government tirades. Do you believe Beck is dangerous?
It's obviously a highly charged subject to talk about him being dangerous. But he clearly is taking ideas and conspiracies from the very fringe that only existed in the dark recesses of the Internet for millions to see and hear every day. [Fox News commentator] Bill O'Reilly says Beck takes things five steps further than he does. I think that's right. Beck often starts with a kernel of truth and goes into some strange and dark places.
If Sen. John McCain would have been elected in 2008, would we be talking about Beck right now?
I suspect we wouldn't be. It's much easier and much more satisfying to be the bomb thrower than to be the poor guy who's trying to defend an administration, particularly one that's become unpopular. So I suspect that we'd know who Glenn Beck is, but I don't think he would've distinguished himself.
His contract at Fox is up at the end of next year. What's next for him?
For a demagogue of this nature, there are two things that can happen. One is you just sort of flame out, do something completely outrageous. I don't think Beck will do that because I think he is very controlled. I think the likelier thing is he just fades away. The economy improves, people aren't so angry and suspicious at the government. Then he doesn't have the same appeal. But the way things are going, he's still got a good ride ahead of him.
What are the chances Beck runs for president?
I would say zero. That gives Beck accountability, responsibility. And I don't think he's about that at all. I think he has more power as a bomb thrower. Being accountable would not work with his routine.
But let's just say Beck wins the presidency in 2012 and the Tea Party has gained some seats in both houses. Where do they take the country?
I think the alarm over the Tea Party is overstated. But you're asking me to go a step further and wonder about a Beck presidency. Is Sarah Palin secretary of state?
She's in the cabinet.
Well, all I can say is, that would be a hell of a story.