Talk about irony. The summer of 2011 will be remembered as a moment that Glenn Beck left the national stage -- or moved to its fringe, anyway -- and Texas Gov. Rick Perry stepped up front and center, becoming the instant frontrunner in a muddled GOP primary field for the right to challenge President Obama.
What's the irony? For most of the last two-and-and-a-half years, the rise of Perry and Beck in the national conversation, along with the Tea Party Movement that both men helped spawn, were all about as intertwined as fishing lines on a boatload of first-time anglers. Beck's ability to book the governor of America's second-largest state gave the former "Morning zoo" jock some cred as a political host, but quickly it was clear that the Texas Republican needed Beck and his at-the-time-growing influence even more.
Today, you might think of Beck as the guy who increasingly brought "tha crazy" in his 29-month run on the Fox News Channel, who hyped conspiracy theories like "FEMA camps" and the coming "caliphate" in the Middle East (along with overpriced gold coins), who lapsed into anti-Semitism on more than one occasion and who famously charged that Obama has "a deep-seated hatred" for whites.
But at the height of all that, Rick Perry called him something else: Honorary Texan -- an honor the governor bestowed on the right-wing media icon at a Beck event in Tyler, Tex., held last year.
But as Perry surges to the head of the GOP pack, it's important to see how the governor's ideas and his rhetoric were radicalized in tandem with Beck's.
The story starts in April 2009, three months after Obama was inaugurated and after Beck launched his FNC program. The two seemed to become fast friends after Perry appeared on Beck's program that month for some right-wing tough talk on undocumented immigration. A few days later, Beck said that he and Perry would be appearing together on April 15 at a newfangled series of rallies called "tea parties" slated for Tax Day.
That didn't exactly happen. The organizers of the rally that Beck hosted and broadcast from (something of a journalistic conflict, some pointed out) the Alamo in San Antonio decided to bar politicians from speaking, and so Perry took his act to three other incarnations of the tea parties that were so heavily promoted on Fox.
It was at one of these Fox-fueled rallies that Perry famously -- in response to chants from the seminal Tea Partiers and then to reporters' questions -- seemed to endorse the idea that Texas could secede from the Union, stating that "if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that." Perry had a quick learning curve, apparently, when it came to the new fast-moving backlash fueled by Beck, his Fox cohorts and the Tea Party that they'd stirred up.
He had to. It's easy to forget in the 24/7 cable news stampede, but while Perry may be measuring the drapes of the Oval Office in 2011, in 2009 he was fighting for his political life. One of the biggest names in Lone Star State politics, GOP Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, was getting ready to challenge Perry in the 2010 primaries, amid the sense that Perry had worn out his welcome after more than two terms in Austin. Perry latched onto Beck's growing popularity on the far right and to the Tea Party as his lifeline.
Eventually Perry was going back on Beck's show and mangling the U.S. Constitution along with the host, claiming that "the idea that they're telling us how to educate our children or how to deliver health care or how to, for that matter, clean our air is really nonsense."
By then, Perry arguably owed his political fortune to Beck. As the 2010 primary approached, Perry -- having shored up his ultra-conservative support and portraying Hutchison as a Washington insider -- was on the brink of victory when an expected problem cropped up. A Ron Paul acolyte named Debra Medina -- backed by even more extreme groups like the Oath Keepers -- was surging in the polls and undercutting Perry's right flank.
Beck asked Medina on his radio show for what her followers thought would be a soft interview; instead, Beck uncharacteristically ambushed Medina, asking her if she was a 9/11 "truther." Her non-denial all but sunk her campaign, and some cynics couldn't help but notice that one of Perry's largest donors, having contributed nearly $300,000 over a decade, was the CEO of Clear Channel Communications, whose subsidiary syndicates Beck's radio program nationally.
Not long after the primary was when Beck came to Tyler for a "Taking Back America" town hall meeting, and Perry was one of the speakers and featured guests, awarding Beck with that honorary citizenship. One of the other speakers was a Texas state rep named Leo Berman who said, "I believe that Barack Obama is God's punishment on us today, but in 2012, we are going to make Obama a one-term president."
Neither Beck nor Perry seemed to object to that remark. In fact, Perry told reporters before that event that Beck was leading a movement to take back America and that "I consider myself proud to be in that army." The two men have remained close ever since; in Beck's final month on the Fox program, when his ratings had plummeted and some even in the GOP establishment had come to see the media figure as something of a lunatic, Perry made an unannounced cameo appearance to get Beck to draw his picture on his chalkboard of GOP White House hopefuls. Coincidentally, it soon came out that "honorary Texan" Beck is moving to Dallas.
It should be noted that Beck gave a tentative endorsement of Michele Bachmann on his radio show last week, but he was very quick to add that he was only covering announced candidates, a list that did not include Perry at that time. Already just today, Beck has taken to his radio show to defend Perry's comments on secession and back up the Texas governor's disturbing comments about the Fed and its chairman Ben Bernanke. Clearly, with Beck's radio show still listened to by millions of conservatives of the kind who vote in GOP primaries, their relationship should help Perry in the coming months.
So why does Rick Perry have a Glenn Beck problem? Because in flying in tandem so far to the right, Beck has helped to take an unremarkably conservative Texas governor who might once have had a story to tell (albeit a misleading one) on the real issue in America, which is jobs, and render him all but unelectable in a general election. Yes, it's true that hitching his star to Beck and extreme right-wing views on the Fed, the 10th Amendment and the Fed that have been incubated in the toxic labs of talk radio helped Perry win re-election and could well carry him to the 2012 nomination. But Perry is going to have a lot of explaining to do when moderate voters emerge from their political cocoon in about 13 months or so. If Obama becomes the first president to win re-election with 9 percent employment, he might actually want to thank Glenn Beck!
Meanwhile, here's something disturbing to ponder. Beck's extreme act eventually caused his TV ratings to nose-dive and led even the conservatives like Roger Ailes who run Fox News to yank him off the air before his contract expired. Yet in mimicking Beck, Rick Perry has soared to the top of the political charts, at least the right half of them. Even America's news media makes more sense than our politics these days.