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September 3, 2010

New Messiah?

Roy Meachum

The last time I reported on a massive throng gathered around the Reflecting Pool, in front of the seated marble Abraham Lincoln, it was the first major anti-Vietnam demonstration that eventually led to toppling Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency.


Organizer Glenn Beck informed his followers afterwards their turnout Saturday numbered half a million. He should be believed and not media and police estimates made to cover themselves, just in case. The anxieties afflicting this age are compounded by commentators and officials’ anxieties.


Put simply, discounting the public statements and non-governmental theses, no one knows where this nation is going, thrashing through a minor-major depression; sorting out what I hope but doubt is America’s last colonial war.


The conditions create tremendous opportunities for anyone who has a public platform and radiates sublime assuredness in what he’s saying. This does not apply solely to the Fox News’ personality; Glenn Beck seems to have his act together, and more power to him. But repercussions from his performance last weekend evoke recollections of my childhood in Louisiana.


In the first years of the Great Depression, Huey P. Long radiated a similar confidence and all the world knows how he wound up; remembering the senator’s assassination, Mr. Beck prudently wore a bullet-proof vest before the huge crowd. Good for him!


When ex-Governor Long died, several days after being shot in the State Capitol he built as homage to himself, my great-grandmother Idella Thompson cried for damned near a week. She was not alone. Made destitute by factors they could not influence or control, the majority of Louisiana citizens grieved; they were not the only Americans.


Huey Long represented, right or wrong, the ultimate hope for millions in the 1930s. His campaign song, “Every Man a King,” was the national anthem for people drowning in the economic morass. The redneck from Winnfield, thereby, posed a real threat for the squire of Hyde Park.


The following year Franklin D. Roosevelt contended with his first election since taking the office away from Republican Herbert Hoover, a Quaker from Iowa. FDR’s predecessor happened to be on the Oval Office cat-seat when banks and other financial institutions collapsed. Mr. Roosevelt was very lucky. Black Monday happened in the first year of the Hoover presidency; Democrats had quadruple congressional sessions to lambaste Republicans. Wall Street’s collapse was not solely the GOP’s failure; several past chief executives paved the way, especially World War I Democratic President Woodrow Wilson.


Capitalizing on the country’s feeling of being let down by the Republicans, Mr. Roosevelt pushed through revolutionary legislation, intended to right the off-balance citizenry; some of those reform acts are currently under serious attack, like Social Security. But the guaranteed pension for everyone of a certain age furnished major electoral fuel for the New Deal. Still all those bills were nowhere near enough for restive voters. A sizeable portion of the population looked for bigger hope from other leaders.


Several years before Social Security took effect, Francis Townsend dangled before aging Americans a $200 monthly pension. The already retired California doctor included also a very broad health plan. Catholic priest Charles Coughlin’s radio program started for the stated purpose of assisting the poor; on the eve of World War II, his anti-Semitism ranting rivaled Nazi propaganda.


But Father Coughlin and Mr. Townsend’s threat to Mr. Roosevelt paled in the heat and light generated by Mr. Long; he directly accused the Hyde Park estate proprietor of being too lofty socially and wealthy to grasp the hopelessness of ordinary families. Unlike the new president who imparted a suave presence, especially in his Fireplace Chats, the redneck grunted and sweated a working man’s sweat, wiping his head several times during speeches. There was a genuine possibility of the guy from Winnfield snatching the golden ring, the White House. A disgruntled dentist’s bullet quashed what-might-have-been.


When confronted with the presidential possibility two years from now, Glenn Beck, like any smart politician, demurred, telling reporters he couldn’t win. No established politician or party can take this seeming messiah lightly; his on-the-edge platform was forged from Americans’ deep agony and high frustrations. Lacking legal authority liberates him to make promises he is in no position to fulfill.


At least, Senator Long had a record from distributing free textbooks and an already underway program to concrete all the state’s dusty roads, replacing rickety old ferries with new bridges. The “Kingfish,” as he called himself, was an effective political “promiser.”


In these dire and dreary days, providing a past filled with accomplishments may not be enough; that fear infected parts of FDR’s administration while the Louisiana senator still hovered. The present president faces a barrage from critics that know he is not responsible for acts performed before his election, but continue to berate and try to bully Barack Obama – pushing for an ideal that could not possibly think or breathe in Washington’s lobbyist ambiance.


“Hit don’t matter no how” is a redneck expression, meaning no reason or logic will be acceptable to the millions represented by the 500,000 that gathered around the Reflecting Pool; their leader claimed he was sustaining the life-work of Martin Luther King, Jr. Saturday was the 47th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech addressed to a crowd similar to last weekend’s. The two rallies’ goers equally suffered the pain of grievous frustration, for totally different reasons.


For those who might in some way harbor trepidations regarding Mr. Beck, I offer consolation: he is no Adolph Hitler who seized upon similar crises in post-World War I Germany, including horrific inflation; it required literally a wheelbarrow of the existing Reichsmarks to buy a single loaf of bread. The people elected the Austrian second to President Karl von Hindenburg. Upon the old war hero’s death, Herr Hitler rammed through Berlin’s Reichstag legislation that transformed the former mendicant artist into an absolute dictator. Millions cheered, not at his evil but out of their fears, desperation and hope; they knew the National Socialist organizer would fix the problems. He had told them.


Firmly planted in the public eye, Glenn Beck’s future can only fascinate those who pay attention. He is the first member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to rocket to national leadership. George Romney doesn’t count; he crashed and burned years ago.


As more than a few columns have ended, I again advise: Stay tuned!



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