Mark Hemingway: Beck, Palin and 300,000 everyday Americans rally on the Mall

Compared to last September's Tea Party march on the Capitol, Saturday's big Glenn Beck rally in Washington was a bit lacking in sheer entertainment value.

Last year's march was a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants event, notable mainly for the colorful homemade signs attacking big government. Nobody expected it to be big, but the turnout was huge.

Held on the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have a Dream” speech, the stakes for Beck's “Restoring Honor” rally at the Lincoln Memorial this year were much higher.

This time around, the setting for the crowd estimated at 300,000 or more was heavily staged. Beck, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Alevada King, a niece of the slain civil rights leader, spoke in front of a massive, TV-friendly backdrop. Those attending the rally were specifically told not to bring signs, so that an unfriendly media couldn't take them out of context.

Making the event less of a political carnival may have made the event less fun for some — but it was the smart move. In fact, King's 1963 “Dream” speech was also stage-managed, notes historian Lucy Barber.

Attendees were told where to stand, what to wear and what signs and slogans would be approved. The goal was to project an appearance of unity and propriety, generate advantageous media coverage and draw attention to King's magnificent speech. It worked.

Unfortunately, Beck and Tea Partiers can't hope for favorable media coverage, so the staging is really about damage control. Even though the “Restoring Honor” rally paid tribute to the legacy of the civil rights movement, the New York Times write-up of the event noted that “critics say they hear an echo of slavery, Jim Crow and George Wallace [in the Tea Party].”

That the word “critics” in that sentence should more properly be replaced with a first-person pronoun says everything significant about the liberal mainstream media's view of the Tea Party.

That's why the clear tenor of the event, which Slate's David Weigel described as “about as angry as a 'Teletubbies' episode,” makes the inevitable attempts to malign it look laughably transparent.

Beck's speech further threw Tea Party “critics” for a loop. Rather than a political broadside directed at the White House, Beck took another page from King's book: He gave an upbeat speech, focusing on religion as a positive force for change.

“Go to your churches, synagogues, and mosques!” Beck proclaimed. He also suggested “teach[ing] in our churches the principles” to fix our politics. He later added some obligatory words of caution about mixing church and politics, but there's no doubting that the civil religion was laid on with a trowel. Regardless, it's unlikely Beck's religious themes will subsume economic liberty as the driving message behind the Tea Party.

The crowd was not composed of religious or political firebrands — just ordinary Americans extraordinarily worried. The crowd was so decent that as they streamed off, many random people stopped along the way to gather up and bag the empty water bottles near the overflowing trash cans on the Mall.

It may have been the anniversary of King's speech, but the more pertinent anniversary might well be August 28, 2008 — the day President Obama accepted the Democratic presidential nomination in Denver, saying he would “measure progress by how many people can find a job that pays the mortgage.”

Three million lost jobs later, the Tea Party may be America's only hope for cleaning up Obama's mess.

Mark Hemingway is an editorial page staff writer for The Examiner. He can be reached at mhemingway@washingtonexaminer.com.

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