MY GLENN BECK/JOHN PRINE ROAD TRIP

Published November 22, 2009

  When I learned (via Twitter) that radio and TV talk host Glenn Beck had scheduled a rally and book signing in The Villages — a sprawling “golf car community” in central Florida — my journalistic goal was immediately clear: I would join forces with my friend Bill, an ardent conservative, to attend the rally and collaboratively dissect its social significance.  Bill considers me to be a liberal;  I consider myself to be independent.

  Unfortunately, the demands of Bill’s work wouldn’t allow him to break away for a full afternoon.  With the loss of this clever journalistic peg, my enthusiasm for a 90-minute Glenn Beck road trip began to wane — until I remembered the John Prine CD anthology that I had been itching to crank up. (Yes, I still listen to CDs.)

  The soundtrack for my drive was a bit of a stylistic mismatch, I suppose.  “Illegal Smile” and “Sam Stone” don’t strike precisely the same tone as “God Bless the U.S.A.”  However, it did occur to me that both Prine and Beck have produced works titled “Common Sense.”  Coincidence?

  As I made my way into “Florida’s Friendliest Hometown,” the number of vehicles displaying full-size American flags increased dramatically.  I also noticed quite a few gun-related bumper stickers — although, to be fair, this IS Florida. You might spot just as many in the parking lots at Walt Disney World.

  “Is this the Nancy Pelosi convention?”

  The question came from a fellow rally-goer, as we walked toward the town square where Beck’s mid-afternoon rally was taking shape.  This genial-yet-pointed jab turned out to be a good predictor of the crowd’s overall demeanor.  You’ve never seen such an easygoing “angry mob” (as Beck would later describe them, jokingly).

  The excitement level notched up when Beck’s tour bus pulled into sight.  A roar of fond appreciation filled the loosely-packed square as he took to the stage — acknowledging the rock-star welcome with a self-deprecating poke at the president: “Man! This is how desperate people are for a leader right now!”

  I’m pretty familiar with Beck, having listened to him frequently during the first incarnation of his talk-radio show on a local AM station in Tampa. Although I enjoyed his “earlier, funny” persona, I’ll admit that I’ve had some concerns about his recent forays into fear-stoked emotionalism and his somewhat convoluted chalkboard talks.

  What Beck delivered in The Villages, however, was mostly a measured and clear-eyed vision of how the American people can effectively engage with their government and, in the process, save their country.

  “This isn’t about health care,” he explained. “It’s about money.”

  Characterizing our mounting national debt as “a global catastrophe on the horizon,” Beck drew comparisons to the Titanic’s deadly run-in with an iceberg: “It’s the Constitution that matters! Get in the lifeboats!”

  He also spoke frankly about personal responsibility.

  “We can’t decry hatred or violence if we are not peaceful people,” he told us. “We can’t complain about debt if we are IN debt.”  He even urged the crowd to adopt a healthier lifestyle — by occasionally “putting down the pie fork.”

  There were other topics, of course, such as his development of a 100-year plan for the U.S., his announcement of a series of regional “education conventions” and — oh, by the way — he has no plans to run for political office.

  Is it possible that Beck’s toned-down approach will mark a turning point in his career, toward a more constructive public dialogue?  I guess we’ll find out soon enough.  His crowd in The Villages seemed pleased with what they had heard.  “Great speaker!” said one man.  “He’s found his niche,” said another.

  On my way out of town, as I passed a bright blue COUNTRY FIRST billboard left over from Sen. John McCain’s presidential bid, I turned to John Prine’s music again — with the hope that he might provide a relevant bit of perspective.  And Mr. Prine did not disappoint;  I must have replayed the chorus of his song “Bruised Orange” three or four times:

“You can gaze out the window, get mad and get madder,
  Throw your hands in the air, say ‘what does it matter?’
  But it don’t do no good to get angry,
  So help me, I know.

“For a heart stained in anger grows weak and grows bitter.
  You become your own prisoner as you watch yourself sit there
  Wrapped up in a trap of your very own
  Chain of sorrow.”

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