Why would a man be attracted to a city he professed to hate?
The question has particular relevance in the case of one of New York’s more recently minted celebrities, Glenn Beck. In the four years since he moved to the area, there are two known instances of Mr. Beck venturing outside of midtown Manhattan. The first involved a brief excursion to Harlem, where Mr. Beck did some taping for a possible television special, Glenn Beck Goes to Harlem. For reasons unknown, it never aired. The host’s other New York adventure, last December, took him 45 blocks south for a stage performance of his novel The Christmas Sweater, which was simulcast around the country from N.Y.U.’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. When the appearance was met with loud sidewalk protests, Mr. Beck was heard to mutter the next morning on the radio, “God, I hate this town.”
It must be hard to hate a place when working there earns you $32 million a year. And Mr. Beck, like a kid from the sticks two years out of college, rarely misses an opportunity to mention that he works in New York. He opens his radio show every morning with the tag line “From high above Times Square, the third most-listened-to show in America …”. Later in the day, he references the city in sign-offs on Fox News, and on his Web site, the host uncharacteristically allows himself to be dwarfed by a nighttime midtown skyline.
After a visit to the Village, Mr. Beck muttered on the radio, “God, I hate this town.”
Yet Mr. Beck’s ascension has come in large part thanks to a worldview that is wholly alien to Manhattan. He trades in heartland clichés, elevating the rural, religious and homogenous parts of America above the godless and corrupt coastal establishments. For the crying conservative, New York is less a city than an idea-one that he routinely throws under the bus when performing before his heartlander base. As he told audiences during his 2003 “Rallies for America” tour, it is they, not us, who represent “the Real America.”
“That’s why we’re here,” he declared. “That’s why we didn’t go [rally in] D.C. or New York. They have nothing to teach us.”
Not that Mr. Beck knows much about New York or its people. His dislike for New York is tinged with the belief that it is doomed-that it represents a soft underbelly in America’s defenses against a possible terrorist assault. Last summer, Mr. Beck mused aloud that, should an attack on the homeland come to pass, “the sheep in America’s northeast” would be “easy to occupy.” Only in heartland states such as Utah and Idaho-the intermountain bastions of his adopted Mormon faith-would the godless invaders encounter meaningful resistance.
When Mr. Beck is technically in New York, he lives in a thick security bubble of his own paranoid making-a steady stream of armored chauffeured cars and brief sidewalk strolls accompanied by gun-toting muscle. The bubble doesn’t lift even when he returns each night to his rural Fairfield County mansion, where he falls asleep to the sound of crickets. (The host is currently in the process of trading up his Connecticut residence, a secluded New Canaan palace with a view not of the city but of a private lake. As of this writing, the property is on sale for a little under the $4.25 million Mr. Beck paid for it in 2005.)
In 2008, when Mr. Beck petitioned to build a 6-foot fence around his property, 2 feet taller than local ordinances allowed, locals rolled their eyes when Beck showed up at the town meeting with his personal security detail by his side. Mr. Beck has more than once mentioned that when he takes his wife, Tania, and their two young children to the movies at his local suburban Connecticut multiplex, he carries a sidearm.
But in a fundamental way, Mr. Beck is no different than many of us: He is first and foremost ambitious. As early as the mid-1970s, while his sullen, guitar-strumming peers in the drizzly Northwest were chewing on third-hand accounts of CBGB, the young Beck’s own Manhattan of the Mind was a gleaming vision of midtown Art Deco skyscrapers. As a precocious teenage DJ in rural Washington State, Mr. Beck decided his destiny was to work in the famed studios of Radio City, which he encountered in the liner notes of a double-album called The Golden Years of Radio.
It would take him until the age of 41 to realize this childhood dream. In 2005, shortly before his television debut on CNN’s Headline News, Mr. Beck moved The Glenn Beck Program from the outskirts of Philadelphia to 1270 Avenue of the Americas, formerly the RKO building, known around the world for the neon Radio City Music Hall sign at ground level. On the ninth floor of that building Beck has built his production company, Mercury Radio Arts, into a multiplatform conservative entertainment juggernaut.
And so, though he rarely ventures out onto its streets, New York remains Glenn Beck’s personal triumph. He earns his bread trash-talking the city and everything he thinks it represents, but when he looks at the approaching skyline every morning, he’s reminded that after years of striving, he’s finally made it, and made it big.
Mr. Zaitchik’s Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance is out now.