03.17.09

Glenn Beck on Why He's No Rush Limbaugh

In a deeply personal interview, the FOX News star defends Michael Steele’s right to be pro-choice, AIG’s big bonuses, and crying on air like Tammy Faye Bakker.

In a deeply personal interview, the Fox News star defends Michael Steele’s right to be pro-choice, AIG’s big bonuses, and crying on air like Tammy Faye Bakker.

Recovering alcoholic, staunch libertarian and—according to detractors—occasional wacko, Glenn Beck has become a bright star at Fox News since he launched his show two months ago and quickly doubled the ratings in the “Fair and Balanced” cable network’s sluggish 5 p.m. slot. Part raging populist, part “rodeo clown” (his own description), Beck regularly scorches President Barack Obama (whom he has accused of trying to remake America into a totalitarian state), has wondered if the government is plotting to use the Federal Emergency Management Agency to operate concentration camps for the politically incorrect, and is already the third most-watched cable-news personality, after Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity.

Beck averaged 2.2 million viewers in February—multiples of the audience he used to attract as a longtime host on CNN’s HLN channel. He also boasts a popular radio program (on 350 stations and growing), two best-selling books (one of them a novel), his own magazine, Fusion, and a fervent fan base in the disenfranchised precincts of the recession-battered heartland.

We’re headed toward statism where these gigantic corporations and government are in bed. That was one of my main problems with George W. Bush.

At 45, rich and successful beyond his wildest dreams, Beck has coped with more than his share of personal tragedies—the suicide of his mother when he was 13, the untimely deaths of other close relatives, and the cerebral palsy of a daughter, plus life-threatening addictions to alcohol and cocaine, and he has he lived to tell the tale. Lloyd Grove talked with Beck about Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele’s right to be pro-choice, AIG’s right to pay huge bonuses to undeserving executives, and his disturbing suicidal impulse while hospitalized last year.

A little over a year ago, you were recovering from serious surgery or, as you put it, “ass surgery.”

I believe I said “butt surgery.”

And you were on a mixture of painkillers, and you got to the point where you said that if someone had brought a handgun into the hospital room, you would’ve blown your brains out. And I’m just wondering what got you into that suicidal state, and what stopped you from following through?

Wow, this is going to be a long interview! What got me there is they had me on a cocktail of about five or six different medicines, one of them was a patch, and I’m trying to remember what kind of drug it is, it’s the heaviest painkiller they have, and on the box it said, “for end of life use only.” So it was a combination of a whole bunch of drugs and what stopped me from doing it is those drugs were really only in my system at that level while I was in the hospital, but it was just a horrible cocktail of medication that was torture.

Have you considered filing a malpractice suit?

No, I talked to the head of the hospital. I’ve never named the hospital—it’s somewhere up in Connecticut. But during the conversation I said, “Look, I’m not a suing kind of guy. I’m interested in making sure this doesn’t happen again to the next person.” He said, “Oh yes I know, we’ve looked into it, yada yada yada,” and at the end he said “Listen, if you ever need to use the hospital here again, here’s my phone number, my cellphone.” I said “Excuse me. Boy, I’m not the suing person but this conversation, if you continue, will make me a suing person. I don’t want your phone number. I want to be able to come into your hospital like everyone else and get good treatment. If you’re going to give your phone number to everybody that needs to come into your hospital, well, that’s a different story. You’ve got a problem, fix it--not for the celebrity, fix it for everyone.”

How do you feel now? Are you OK?

[Laughs.] Yes, I’m fine, totally fine. I just had a bad spell, with that medication there. For several reasons—you know my history—I couldn’t get away from that medication fast enough.

You have put your body through some terrible ordeals.

Yeah, I have. Now I’m on the M&M and doughnut phase of my life.

I would advise you to get off that.

That’s what Shep Smith said to me. He said “I watch your show every night, Glenn. You’ve got to stop eating M&Ms.”

You mentioned Shepard Smith. It seemed to many that he was actively mocking you and making fun of you on his show last Friday.

I don’t know Shep, but I’ve talked to him several times and I even was on his set on Friday right after he was doing that, and we laughed about it. I think he has a good sense of humor.

Well he said he loves watching your program but he doesn’t listen to it. He showed the viewers the satellite truck with the extra-large satellite dish and wondered whether it was to accommodate your large ego.

He actually said he thinks it’s the size of my head, and he’s wrong. It takes three of my heads to fit that.

How has the transition from CNN to Fox News been?

It’s been great. We’ve just hit the ground going 200 miles an hour and the best thing here is the entrepreneurial spirit of Fox. They leave you alone and then hold you responsible for your ratings and your work.

That 5 o’clock time slot has always been problematic for them. Do you hope you might move over to prime-time at some point?

I have to tell you, I am so focused on 5 o’clock and keeping the ratings where they need to be at 5 o’clock and blowing away everybody’s expectations and just holding them. I know there’s a lot of people who think this is a fluke or wow, this is crazy, it’s just new, or whatever. Maybe they end up being right. I don’t know, but I’m just focusing on trying to do the right thing, be the best I can be every day, come what may.

That answer is something you get when you ask a senator or governor who’s obviously running for president if they plan to run for president, and they say, “I’m just so focused on doing my job.”

I’m not running for president. I know you probably don’t meet a lot of people that really believe this, but I am focused on my job. I’m an alcoholic, a recovering alcoholic, so I’m a guy who’s tried to control my whole life. I screwed it up really, really badly. I don’t really care. Come what may, I’ll be fine.

Do you expect that you will be surpassing Rush Limbaugh any time soon in terms of your radio audience?

[Laughs.] I don’t think so.

But are you the pretender to the throne?

I think I do something extraordinarily different than Rush. Rush is political thought, I am a guy who’s part rodeo clown. I don’t pretend to be able to plan movements of the parties and the presidents and everything else. I really don’t care that much about the parties. I’m a dad. I care about my children. I want some country to be left with real freedom in it for them.

Your public persona often seems like that of an angry populist, in the mode of Howard Beale in the movie Network—“mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.”

I feel like Howard Beale. I saw Network just recently, again, and I thought, that’s kind of how I feel. But I think this is the way most Americans feel. I don’t think I’m a populist in the sense that I’m not playing to anybody. I think that’s what the secret of the show is. When you asked who I am, I might’ve answered this differently two years ago than I do now. I am a guy who works my brains out. I am exhausted every single day, and I probably wouldn’t work as hard if the times didn’t call for it. I believe what I say. That’s why sometimes everybody makes fun of me. Jeez, I’m turning into Tammy Faye Bakker, but my emotion is at the surface because I believe it.

When you’re weeping on the air, which you do every so often, are you in control of yourself or do you feel like you’re slipping out of control emotionally?

No, I’m not slipping out of control. I’m in control of myself. I don’t think there’s a problem with people showing emotion. I don’t care what people think, I don’t care if you make fun of me, I don’t care if you disagree, I honestly don’t care in the end if I turn out to be wrong, because actually I hope I’m wrong. There’s no way for me to win if I’m right on some of this stuff.

Some of the things you’ve said are pretty dark. For instance, you said last week to Bill O’Reilly that you can understand how some people in the forgotten parts of America, who are frustrated that no one is listening, could get themselves into a murderous rage like that guy in Alabama who killed all those people.

That’s not exactly what I said. The guy in the murderous rage, I said, was clearly crazy. However, I think what people are missing--people in the government and people in the media—is that they must start listening to people and reacting, and not holding themselves at a different standard. America doesn’t mind if you make a mistake, just admit that you made a mistake. If you break the law, pay the penalty. If somebody’s lying in your party, you have to get that person out because it’s a poison, as people are disenfranchised more and more and lied to more and more and marginalized more and more. When did we go to war in Iraq? 2004? 2003? I was on the air on radio saying,

Listen, stop calling Hollywood un-American because they’re criticizing the war. I don’t need to see their movies but they’re not un-American. There’s nothing more American than speaking out. You can’t shut people down. That is the only kind of speech that is worth protecting, the kind of stuff that pisses you off. Now the same thing is happening on the other side and people have been called racist and hate-mongers or un-American for long enough. The more you isolate people, the more you put them in a little box where you can’t say anything and they feel like nobody’s listening, crazy people are going to snap, and then we’re in trouble.

Can I get you to endorse, clarify, or nitpick a couple of things you’ve said so I understand where you’re coming from? You seem to have said that Al Gore has used Nazi-like propaganda tactics to promote the idea that global warming is a man-made threat, is that correct?

Yeah, the argument that he was making was the same kind of tactic used by the Nazis. I don’t believe Al Gore is trying to gas or round up Jews, I don’t believe the result is going to be the same thing. Just understand that the tactic used was a device used by the Nazis. For instance, we have him on tape during the convention or during the inauguration where he was talking to 12-, 13-, 14- and 15- year olds, and he said “Look there’s a lot of things you understand instinctively but your parents don’t understand those things because they’re just too trapped in old thinking.” Well, gosh, I mean, I know he’s not going to be rounding up Jews any time soon but that’s called the Hitler Youth where you turn the children against the parents.

Do you really believe that Barack Obama is leading us toward socialism and that we are in danger of becoming a totalitarian state?

I believe that he’s not leading us there, he’s led us there. Check the cover of Newsweek magazine, “We’re all socialists now.” We’re there. However—again, some context--I said these things under George Bush with the beginnings of the bailout. You don’t do this in a free-market society. I’m afraid that we are headed toward a state that is controlled in Washington and by these global corporations. We’re headed toward statism where these gigantic corporations and government are in bed. That was one of my main problems with George W. Bush.

How angry does it make you that AIG is using our money to pay $165 million in bonuses to their ill-begotten executives?

It makes me insane because George Bush shouldn’t have given that money to AIG in the first place. Now we have to care about what their contracts with their people say. Now I’m mad at George Bush and Barney Frank and Chris Dodd making this deal. But I can’t believe that Barack Obama wants to break the contract. What are you talking about? You’ve got a contract. Now if that’s what the government is going to do, saying that they have the right to terminate contracts, well, you’ve got to shut the pie hole on it. It’s one or the other. You can’t just start breaking contracts. If you want to do that, that’s why you let businesses fail.

It’s not our contract with AIG, the people’s contract with AIG. It’s AIG’s contracts with its executives.

They made those deals with their employees. How could you possibly back out of the AIG contract because it’s popular? It’s a legal contract.

You’ve also come out for the legalization of marijuana if, under the circumstances, we’re not going to enforce the marijuana laws federally, is that right?

You know what I can’t stand? I can’t stand inconsistency. It’s not about politics for me, it’s about consistency. If we have a problem with drugs at the border, and we’re not going to seriously take on the user, and we’re not going to enforce our own borders, well then, what are we doing?

Would you extend that to other controlled substances?

Look, I’m a libertarian. The problem is that we are so far away from being a society that understands self-regulation, it would be an absolute meltdown at this point. We’re going in the wrong direction. We’ve got to wean ourselves off of government and start regulating ourselves. That’s the same thing with the free-market system. You let people live with the results, good or bad. It’ll fix itself.

Is there anything in your mind that can’t be said?

No, I believe in the Constitution, so everything should be said. In fact the stuff that shouldn’t be said should be the stuff that should be the most protected. There’s a lot in polite society that quite honestly I really struggle with. I was just thinking this weekend, I want to get to a place, and I don’t know how to do it yet, to where I’m offering more about the solutions than the problems. What is our solution? What are we going to do? I don’t know how to do that yet but that’s where I want to go.

Does it matter to you who’s leading the Republican party?

Doesn’t matter at all. Let me say this, yes it does matter to me if they are just saying it or not. I talked to the head of the RNC—

I was going to ask you about him, Michael Steele, who in a recent interview with GQ, just said he was pro-choice. Is that OK with you?

Yeah, I’m a libertarian, man. I am pro-life, but in my perfect world, we encourage people to make decisions that are pro-life. That’s the way it works.

What is it about you that people respond to?

I don’t know for sure but I think it’s a couple of things, I think it’s honesty. They may not agree with me, but they know I believe it. I think it’s a willingness to say, 'Wow, I’ve sucked in the past' or 'I suck today' or 'I was wrong on that yesterday.' I’m just being a person that people are always afraid to be in business or in television or whatever. They’ve gotta be right all the time and if they’re wrong, don’t mention it again. Why? Just tell the truth, and the truth will set you free. I think they find that refreshing And I think the sense of humor. I mean, you don’t have a sense of humor, and oooph.

What are you doing with all your money now that you’re incredibly rich?

I’m looking for the Barack Obama administration to show me which charities they’ll put it in to put it to the best use.

Lloyd Grove is a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio and a frequent contributor to New York magazine. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.