Glenn Beck has a story for me.
He often answers questions with stories. Full stories, with settings and characters and dialogue. A question about his regrets might evoke a story that involves Bono and Spider-Man and Beck standing in front of a floor-to-ceiling window, staring out at the New York skyline. A question about whether he’s reductive when he talks about American history leads to a story about a 100-year-old cane and the silent film Birth of a Nation.
This story, the one about Beck’s most recent evolution and his simultaneous move to Texas, begins on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. He refers to the day simply as “8/28,” meaning August 28, 2010, the day he held his Restoring Honor rally in Washington, D.C., on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. He planned and talked about the event for a year before it happened.
“I thought it was to be political in nature,” he says. “But as I talked about it more and more, that felt more wrong, that it should be way away from politics. And then, when I walked off the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that summer, that’s the first time I felt like: ‘You’re standing in the wrong place.’ And that meant everything that I was doing.”
He’d assembled a massive crowd of devoted supporters, and at this point, he’d become an icon, the most outspoken voice in the budding Tea Party. But, for reasons he still doesn’t completely understand, something didn’t feel right.
He knew he’d be leaving Fox. He’d been toying with the idea of doing a TV show on his website, what was at the time called The Insider Extreme and, later, GBTV. And he knew he had to relocate. Beck felt like God had a plan for him. He just had to figure out what it was.
“This poor real estate agent must have thought I was insane,” he says.
The real estate agent said, “What are you looking for?”
“I don’t really know,” Beck said.
The real estate agent said, “Do you want land or a building?”
“I don’t really know,” Beck said. “Show me a little of both.”
“A lot of land or a little land?”
“I don’t really know. Why don’t you show me a little of both.”
One of the first places he saw was the Solana development on Highway 114, in Westlake. And while he was intrigued by the weird colors and odd building shapes, he decided that the roofs and walls might not be able to support his heavy studio equipment.
His next stop was some empty land on the other side of the highway. At some point he asked the real estate agent to pull off the road so he could walk into a field and think. He strolled alone over a hill.
“I just needed a chance to talk to the Lord and say, ‘What am I doing? What am I looking for?’ ” he says. “I was actually wearing boots that day. Still with dew on my boots, I started seeing all the things I learned about the mistakes of Walt Disney.”
Glenn Beck is obsessed with Orson Welles and Walt Disney. He owns scrapbooks that once belonged to Welles and a first edition of a book that Disney carried with him for the last 10 years of his life. He says Disney didn’t structure his company the right way. He didn’t own enough, and he lost control of some aspects of his business.
“I’ve seen the original prospectus for Disneyland,” Beck says. “In there, there’s a lot different. There’s a big white church in the middle of it. A big white church right in the center of Main Street. What happened to that?” (His lessons from Orson Welles: don’t take the critics to heart, and don’t dwell on the past. “He could never let Citizen Kane go. He could never let it go. And it destroyed him in the end.”)
As these thoughts came to him in that field, he says, he didn’t know what to make of them. Was he supposed to build an amusement park?
“That was quickly dismissed,” he says. “It was the lessons. I think the Lord was trying to say, ‘Learn the lessons from the storytellers before you.’ ”
Later that afternoon, he had a lunch meeting in the Hilton at Southlake Town Square. He was trying to explain to a different real estate agent what he was picturing. A small town. A look. A certain feeling. He was searching for the right words when he glanced down one of the streets of the town square. Red brick buildings, gazebos, mothers shopping, children playing by a fountain—there it was.
Some part contrived nostalgia, some part high-end consumerism, all of it sprinkled with good-looking suburbanites enjoying their day.
“I said, ‘It’s this. It feels like this.’ It’s so clean!”
So he talked with his wife, and they decided they’d move down the road, to Westlake.
Most people think Beck went away when he left Fox. He didn’t. After coming to the posh suburban landscapes of Tarrant County, he took his talents to the internet, where dedicated fans can pay about $100 a year to subscribe directly. Vanity Fair and others have reported that he has about 300,000 subscribers (though there’s no way of knowing for sure). He broadcasts live on the radio for 15 hours a week and does his TV show for another hour every night. Alexa.com, a site that ranks internet traffic, puts Beck’s TheBlaze.com above Bloomberg, Gawker, and Reuters. He also has a movie studio, a clothing company, and his own imprint at Simon & Schuster—where he publishes not only his own books but also several other best-selling authors, in multiple genres. All told, he has about 300 employees, and tallying his various endeavors, Forbes put his 2013 income at $90 million—more than Oprah.
His headquarters are in Irving, in the building that used to be The Studios at Las Colinas. Just inside the locked front door, across from the receptionist and armed security guard, is a mural. It’s two stories tall and depicts a large man in a suit made of newspaper print. He’s lifting his foot to step on a smaller man, who’s holding a slingshot. Next to them are the words: DAVID SLEW GOLIATH WITH FIVE SMOOTH STONES. Across the head of the Goliath character is the logo of the New York Times. On the head of the David character is the logo of TheBlaze, Beck’s television network and website.
When I arrive, one of Beck’s publicists is waiting for me. We go through another locked door and step into a world of Beck’s own design. Glass walls reveal, on one side of the main hallway, a long conference table full of young people hunched over computers. A submarine stretching at least 20 feet hangs over them as they type. Behind them is an easel holding a poster with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Imitation is suicide.” This, I’m told, is Beck’s think tank. He also calls it his “war room.”
Beck’s office is open, visible through the glass to anyone walking by. Five or six people walk out as I walk in. He has a scented candle lit on a table next to his “Disruptive Innovation” award from the Tribeca Film Festival. Soft music plays faintly from hidden speakers.
He’s finishing up a meeting at his desk when I spot him: the shock of white hair, parted perfectly, the startlingly blue eyes and round spectacles. Because of the lights and equipment, the rooms here are kept cool, so he wears jeans and a red cardigan sweater with a thick shawl collar, like he may have just been reading a book by a fireplace, even though it’s 94 degrees outside. The 50-year-old is the embodiment of avuncular.
I worked for two years to get an interview with Beck, since around the time of his Restoring Love event at Cowboys Stadium in July 2012. He still appears every so often in the friendly confines of Fox News, but he rarely grants outside interviews or cooperates with profiles.
So I went to his events. I talked to people at various levels of his organization. I listened to and watched his shows. I subscribed to his newsletter and read his books. And I read both book-length takedowns of him: Alexander Zaitchik’s Common Nonsense and Dana Milbank’s Tears of a Clown. I wanted to understand him, and I wanted to understand what has made him so successful. After renovating the studios earlier this year, Beck agreed to give me a tour—and to talk about his personal transformation.
He gives me a firm handshake and a pleasant greeting. When I fumble with my recorder and make an awkward joke about not wanting to hear my own voice, he erupts in uncomfortable laughter. His voice sounds like it’s being filtered through a microphone even when it isn’t.
“People are always surprised in meeting me at how quiet I am,” he tells me. “But that’s who I am. There’s a difference between—not in what I believe, but one is on a stage. You meet somebody who’s onstage, whether they’re reading someone else’s lines or, in my case, saying what I believe, there’s still performance value to that.”
So, for two hours on a Monday afternoon, we walk around his remodeled facilities in Irving, and our conversation covers everything from his affinity for storytelling to the destiny of the universe to whether he whitewashes history. I’m invited to ask him anything I want.
“As long as the American people hear the message that we don’t have to be this way,” he says. He often comes back to this, the notion that the country has become too divided. “I don’t think people want to be this way. I can’t tell you how many really profoundly liberal friends I have in New York, and they’re now saying, ‘Glenn, I feel the same way. I feel the same way.’ Good. Now we can make progress. We’re still gonna disagree with each other. But we can at least make progress.”
One of the most divisive political commentators in recent history, Beck trafficked in paranoia. He once joked about poisoning Nancy Pelosi. He characterized Democrats as vampires. During a show in 2009, he asked, “President Obama, why don’t you just set us on fire?” Not long after the Arab Spring began, he suggested that soon parts of Europe would become a caliphate, noting that when you combine the forces of Marxism with a radical form of Islam, “the whole world starts to implode.” He preyed on his viewers’ darkest fears while shilling for companies that sold gold, dried meals, backup hard drives, and silencers. He has apologized for some of the stupid things he’s said—like calling President Obama a racist. Now, he says he wishes he’d done some things differently. He knows he played a role in tearing this country apart. He’s calling for unity and wants Americans to be more loving and respectful of one another. And he wants to lead by example.
If you haven’t been paying attention—if Beck has slipped off your radar—he’s said and done a few things over the last year that might surprise you. He said liberals were right about the Iraq war, that we never should have gone in. He said he thinks Hillary Clinton will be the next president. He said he supports gay marriage—or, more specifically, that he doesn’t believe the government should have a say in anyone’s marriage, one way or the other. And this summer, he took truckloads of food and toys to immigrant children who had crossed the border into South Texas.
“I still have the same beliefs,” he tells me. “I’m still a conservative. But I just think that the country is best served by a smarter Glenn Beck. A quieter guy.”
Beck is hard to parse. Sometimes he’s self-deprecating, telling me that, being new to Texas, he’s “still all hat and no cattle.” Sometimes he’s the exact opposite, telling me that his company is “just scratching the surface” of what it can do in terms of storytelling and entertainment, and that it might put “old media” out of business within a few years. And sometimes it seems Beck is in a permanent existential crisis, wondering how he got to where he is in life.
The money, the attention, the ability to gather a giant crowd on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial: “My talent didn’t get me there, obviously,” he says. “There’s no way you could get from where I was in 2000—broke, never done talk radio before, never done television before, nothing—to 10 years later, 500,000 people. How is that happening?” To him, it feels destined. Fated. Like he’s a character from the Bible.
He’s probably most known for his tear-stained soliloquies. Those do still happen, but they are rarer. A lot of his shows are filled with personal anecdotes from his family or stories he’s heard or read about, mixed with his personal takes on whatever topic comes up. He was quick to criticize Cliven Bundy, the renegade Nevada rancher, even before Bundy’s remarks became more overtly racist. Beck also has a running clock counting how long Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi, the former Marine arrested while crossing the border with three loaded guns, has been imprisoned in Mexico, and he isn’t above calling out individual bureaucrats he thinks should be fired. But he’s also interested in engaging with people who view the world differently. He had Malcolm Gladwell on and asked him about not only his book David and Goliath, but also about his spirituality. Not long ago, singer-songwriter Andrew W.K., the self-described “philosopher of partying,” appeared on Beck’s show to talk about his new weekly column in the Village Voice. Beck showed the singer an out-of-tune blue piano played by protesters in the Ukrainian revolution and asked him to play a song that “speaks freedom or liberty.”
His website is like the Huffington Post with a libertarian bent. There’s a lot of aggregation and news of the day, along with the television stream, which is also available on Dish and through iTunes. When Beck isn’t on the air, there’s other content, about 200 hours a month. His sidekicks, Pat Gray and Steve “Stu” Burguiere, have their own shows. There are documentaries and children’s programming. There’s a low-budget, conservative-minded version of Saturday Night Live that airs on the weekends.
Nearly all of that comes out of this building. There are three soundstages, and behind them it looks like a magician’s workshop. There are big safes and strange-colored couches and what looks like the remnants from the set of a western.
Beck has meticulously placed a lot of the items around the studio. He has a taxidermied polar bear in a corner and wooden octopuses hanging from the ceiling. He has a lot of old-fashioned cameras and movie reels and the kind of radio microphones used to record soap operas more than half a century ago. He has a 10-foot-tall portrait of Abraham Lincoln made from 150,000 roofing nails and two gigantic audio-animatronic robots he plans to take with him on a tour of the nation someday. He’s waiting to take delivery of a statue of Vladimir Lenin, a gift from real estate mogul Harlan Crow.
Fifteen years ago, Beck was a broke, out-of-work disc jockey who’d spent his entire adult life bouncing between radio stations all over the country. He quit or was fired from jobs in Corpus Christi, Louisville, Phoenix, Provo, Houston, Baltimore, and New Haven. At one point he had a show called Captain Beck and the A-Team. He didn’t talk politics. He did impressions and pranks and morning zoo-style comedy that occasionally had him apologizing.
He grew up in a conservative family outside Seattle. His parents divorced when he was young, and when he was 15, his mother drowned in Puget Sound. Beck describes her death as a suicide. Aside from one class he took at Yale—he enrolled with a recommendation from Senator Joseph Lieberman, who counted himself among Beck’s New Haven fans in 1996—Beck never went to college. He says he spent most of his early adulthood drunk or stoned. Soon he was divorced.
In 1994, he started going to AA, and he got clean. If you listen for it, you can still hear that same stream-of-consciousness language of recovery in a lot of the things he says today.
He was married a second time and began what he called a “spiritual quest” to find a religion right for him. He ended up joining the Mormon church in 1999, and his life has been guided by what he sees as a series of inspirations and revelations from God ever since.
It wasn’t until after 9/11, though, that he switched to the talk radio format. His syndication deal, signed in August 2001, was pushed up in the wake of the tragedy. That’s when he formed Mercury Radio Arts—named after Orson Welles’ famous theater company. At the time, Beck had no experience with television or movies or writing books, but he says he had some vague notion that he wanted to try all of them.
This was a moment in our history when people were confused and the world had changed. Our country was all flag pins and freedom fries, and it was growing increasingly evangelical. And here was Beck—both religious and, in his own words, “rah rah, America!”—trying to figure it all out.
The first time I ever heard of him was during his early days on CNN Headline News, the same channel that carries Nancy Grace. Beck built rhetorical pyramids using cliches and seemed to be advocating for something, though it was impossible to tell exactly what. His fans saw a man trying to learn something as he was teaching it, someone working through a real-time assessment of what, exactly, he himself believes. His critics saw the blathering of an uninformed man. I saw a little bit of both.
In all he does, though, Beck says he considers himself first and foremost a storyteller. This isn’t pretense. It’s the reason he has collected all the oddities around his office. They help him retell the stories he has heard. One of the expressions Beck uses most to describe his media empire is “the fusion of entertainment and enlightenment.” He wants to inform and influence people, and he knows the most effective way to do that is through stories.
And history is, as he says, “the greatest story ever … the story of everything.” Most of the things he’s collected are artifacts of Americana, what he sees as the collective story of us: Babe Ruth’s suitcase, a flag that landed on the beach in Normandy on D-Day, a replica of the ruby slippers Judy Garland wore in The Wizard of Oz. He thinks of himself as a cultural curator the same way Disney was.
Beck says he owns or has access to about $50 million in historical artifacts. He has proxies at auctions all over the world, looking for all sorts of items. For his stage shows, he adds lights and music, and on occasion, robots. Anything that might make the story more engaging.
The history and the story of Texas are part of what drew him here, he explains. He loves to walk around the State Fair with his family. “Walt Disney was a fair man,” Beck says. “He was a World’s Fair guy. The Texas State Fair is the closest to the World’s Fair that we have.” It’s true. A D Magazine editor encountered him near the Midway last year.
He tells me that the first idea he had in that field is still with him. He’d like to build what would essentially be a perpetual Texas Centennial, celebrating the state’s history.
“I would love a town, or somebody to tell me, ‘Hey, we want to build a major attraction.’ I want to tell the story of Texas. But I want to build it out, to where it is an attraction that will bring people from all over the country and definitely all over Texas, to see the story of Texas.”
“Wait,” I say. “You want to build a Texas-themed amusement park?”
“Well, not with rides and stuff,” he says. “But an attraction where people come and, between the museum and educational service, I think we can really put some town on the map and make it a big tourist attraction.”
His favorite story from the history of Texas? “I love the Alamo,” he says. “When I learned it was racist to teach the Alamo, I thought, What part of the Alamo do people not understand? It was good people standing up to free other people. They just saw injustice, and they came together and they said, ‘We’re standing!’ I think that’s fantastic.”
Back in his office, he tells me that he doesn’t know how his own story will end, or what history will think of him. He says his ultimate goal is to keep telling the stories nobody else is telling. It makes sense, but I remind him, in the spirit of togetherness, that when he refers to historical stories as “untold” or “hidden,” it feeds into people thinking that he’s a conspiracy theorist—which he’s adamant that he is not.
“It’s never been hidden,” he says. “It’s always been out in the open.” He says he’s talking specifically about what he sees as progressive academics who seek to rewrite history in a way that suits their worldview.
“Rewriting American history to fit where you want it to go—that’s just dishonest,” he says. “I think we’re much better.”
“Do you ever worry about doing that yourself?” I ask. Like that big white church on Main Street in the Disney prospectus. It was actually called the Little Church Around the Corner, and it wasn’t on Main Street. “You have a specific viewpoint, too. Aren’t you rewriting history?”
He’s quiet for a moment. Then he stands up. “See the cane on my desk?” he says. He walks over and picks up a wooden cane with a silver handle. “Right here.” He points to the engraving on the handle: D.W. Griffith 1912.
Beck has another story for me.
“Probably one of the most important filmmakers of the 20th century,” he says. “The first Cecil B. DeMille, if you will. He’s the guy who directed Birth of a Nation.”
He’s talking about Griffith’s 1915 silent film about Civil War Reconstruction, what was basically a two-hour paean to the Ku Klux Klan—a total perversion of American history. He says he keeps the cane as a reminder of what can go wrong and how careful he has to be.
“The damage that man did,” he says, softening his voice. “Grave, grave damage.”
Beck says a large percentage of his artifact collection consists of what he calls “the ugliness of American history.” It started with a suggestion from one of his daughters, who pushed him to learn more about “the awful things we did.” He agreed, under one condition. “I said, ‘Well you know what, I challenge you. If you learn the good stuff, I’ll learn the bad stuff. And in the end, I bet the good outweighs the bad.’ ”
That’s how he eventually came into possession of a rifle taken from one of the Lakota men after the massacre at Wounded Knee, though Beck temporarily forgets the name, calling it twice “the very famous massacre at the creek.” He says the gun is one of only seven in existence, and that the others are all in museums.
“When I can hand that to a kid and be teaching: ‘You want to know about the Indians? See this gun? We took it off a dead guy that we slaughtered in the middle of the night, because we were afraid. Because one person said, you can’t trust those Indians, and the other people were afraid. Then we buried all the information!’ ”
He gets worked up talking about the injustice. “It’s an abomination what we did!” he says. Then he’s calm. “But because of that, I will have credibility with my children when people ask, ‘Can you tell me about the crossing of the Delaware or Thomas Paine?’ ”
Eventually, we get back to this new Glenn Beck, and his desire to be less divisive. I push him, asking if he has any specific regrets. I remember the Tea Party rallies in 2010 and seeing how angry and worked up his fans were. Beck says he has been working on being positive for more than two years now.
“Turning that aircraft carrier around doesn’t happen in a bathtub,” he says.
Maybe history will prove he was able to rebuild his role in American society the way he’s rebuilt these studios. But Beck also points out that, regardless of what some people want to think, he didn’t single-handedly split this country in half.
“I could walk out of here and get hit by a bus,” he says. “No headline will ever be written, ‘Glenn Beck hit by a bus, America saved.’ Never gonna happen. So it’s not just me. It’s all of us. I’ll lead by example. I’ll take all the blame and then some on anything I did. Let’s just stop doing it now.”
It’s possible that Beck has changed because our country has changed. Things aren’t like they were only a few years ago. The economy is better. More people are working. Fewer people live with the same fears they had in 2010. It’s possible he got tired of being outraged the way he so often seemed to be, that he’s taken the temperature of his audiences, and they just aren’t as hot as they once were. And, of course, it’s easier to preach kindness when you’re rich.
It’s also possible that he’s pandering, trying to expand his audience. The Tea Party has slipped in popularity, and Beck is a savvy populist. Of course his favorite part of Texas history is the Alamo. Of course it was seeing a wealthy, white suburb that sealed his decision about moving.
But even if you think he is pandering to a lowest common denominator, you can’t argue with his sentiments. We have become too divided, too tribal, too ready to attack, to mock one another.
“We all want to belong to something bigger and better than we are experiencing right now,” he says. “We all want to be heard, not necessarily agreed with. We all want control over our own lives and to make our way and be who we are.”
When the publicist announces that our time is done, Beck tells me that he has found our talk “thoughtful.” “I appreciate your kindness,” he says.
Before I leave his office, he opens his arms for a hug. It’s been a weird day, and this might be the most surreal of all the strange moments this afternoon. I hesitate, and Beck just looks at me.
“Come on,” he says. “Let’s hug it out.”