While most of the country finds the president not guilty by
reason of inanity, an unregenerate few remain resolute unto resignation:
the men of talk radio.
Here in New Haven, WELI AM-960
has pre-empted its mind-numbing News at Noon with “The Impeachment of Character,”
a program dedicated entirely to hemming and hawing the president out of
office. Glenn Beck, who narrates the ride to work for WELI’s FM affiliate,
KC-101, has given up his lunch hour to host the show. Maybe host isn’t the
right word. Beck doesn’t take callers, interview experts, or prattle with
his usual KC-101 buds about traffic-girl Heather Scott’s new outfit. He
barely even analyzes the news. Mostly, he just reads the Starr Report, uncut,
The show is not as boring
as it sounds. As he has plumbed deeper into Clinton’s sewage, Beck has cleaned
up his impersonations. The president now sounds like a perverted cracker,
Vernon Jordan an idiotic Uncle Tom, and Monica Lewinsky a Jewish American
Princess who fell off the short bus on the way to the special school. Complete
with stock characters and improvised dialogue, “The Impeachment of Character”
is like a radio play out of the 1930s. However, back then when you turned
on the radio, you did not hear obscenities like penis and vagina and cigar.
The show is certainly offensive, but no one seems more offended by it than
Beck himself, who calls the report “vile,” and even refused to mention the
cigar story when it first broke. So why does Beck spread the poison?
I drove to WELI’s studios
in Hamden to find out. Beck looks as intimidating as he sounds, at 6’4″
with icy eyes and a paunch that will probably keep him off television. When
I met him, he was wearing a baggy gray sweatsuit and an old-fashioned Yale
jacket. I asked him what he thought of the president’s grand jury testimony.
“The tape shouldn’t have come out,” he said, taking a strange position for
a guy who’s made it his job to publicize the scandal. But for Beck, Clinton’s
legal maneuverings hurt the country as badly as his sexual indiscretions.
“We’re involved with a president who’s a lawyer, not a leader,” he said.
“It is high time we start searching for a stronger leader.”
You’d think so, wouldn’t
you? But what about that pesky 69 percent of Americans who don’t want the
lawyer-in-chief impeached? “It’s like the debate on whether parents matter.
It’s an excuse for parents who aren’t spending the time. We impose those
same standards on the presidency. We’re looking for absolution.”
Beck may be looking for absolution
himself. Last year he hosted an amorphous call-in program on WELI that pre-empted
the first hour of the immensely popular Dr. Laura. To make matters worse,
his opinions were so abrasive and he was so nasty to dissenting callers
that after a few weeks, his was almost the only voice. Augustinian arias
on ethical discordances in Beck’s own past swelled into choruses of moral
indignation. He once asked a caller to read the ten commandments over the
air as Beck tallied the ones he’d broken. He had broken most of them, as
it turned out-at least as many as Clinton has. As the callers dropped off,
he filled the air more and more with random self-deprecating/righteous revelations.
The show was short-lived.
“The Impeachment of Character”
is more titillating than Beck’s earlier attempt, a sort of public confessional
for America. Unlike the president’s defenders, Beck isn’t going to make
it easy for us: the viler the report, the dumber his Lewinsky, the more
unctuous his Jordan, and the slimier his Clinton. Beck lingers over every
lie like a fine meal before a guilt-emptying purge.
So what prevents the show
from becoming as lascivious as the president? In the end, the scandal Beck
dramatizes is a play within a larger play about its narrator. Beck’s trudge
from moral ambiguity to moral superiority culminates in judgement of the
president, the country, and himself. And not for sexual dysfunction-Beck
takes that sort of sin for granted. “Personal life,” he said, “is one thing.
The problem is perjury.” The moral question here isn’t about sin but whether
we talk honestly and openly about it. The inner comedy about Monica and
Bill may be bawdy and repugnant, but the outer tragedy about Glenn is cathartic
Its dialectical structure
finally saves “The Impeachment of Character” from the obvious hypocrisy
of teaching morality by publicizing a salacious scandal. The show isn’t
about a scandal so much as a scandal’s negation. Beck’s rendition of the
Starr Report could only be a farce. To take the Report on its own, as a
dry legal document, would be to cave in to the president’s miasma of half-truths
and jargon. As a comedy, the Report comes on the scene already unravelled
by morality. By turn, the outer drama of Beck’s own struggle depends on
some kind of inner guilt to lament. For him, it seems, the real problem
with the unmoved 69 percent of us is not that we lack a sense of what’s
right, but that we lack a sense of what’s wrong. We may agree that lying
is bad, but we don’t think the scandal ought to have happened in the first
place. For Beck, however, there is no first place without a scandal.