Once upon a time, I had one of the best seats at the famous "Stand in the Gap" rally held on the National Mall in 1997 by the Promise Keepers organization, since I served as a kind of religion-news color commentator for MSNBC -- the only network that covered that massive event from dawn to dusk.
At the end of the day, several things intrigued me.
First of all, it was obvious to me that hardly any of the journalists present gave a flip what anyone on the stage was saying. Everybody was there to cover the interactions that they hoped took place between the counter-demonstrators and the men, young and old, for what I called the "Woodstock of the charismatic renewal movement."
Alas, all the men wanted to do was sing and pray. Bummer.
Since hardly anyone in the press was listening, few people noticed that (a) many of the speakers were Democrats of color and (b) that hardly anyone was taking potshots at President Bill Clinton. In fact, most of the rhetoric that day stressed that the nation's problems most pressing problems were moral in nature and, thus, couldn't be solved with legislation. There was a profound sense of disappointment in the air that day with politics in general. If anyone needed to be worried, I said on the air, it was Newt Gingrich and the GOP leadership since many of the keepers sounded like they were upset with Beltway politicians -- period.
So what does this have to do with the Glenn Beck rally yesterday at the Lincoln Memorial?
Probably very little, since (a) I know next to nothing about Beck (I have never seen his show) and (b) I don't know much about what happened at his big show since the main story in the Washington Post about this event offers next to nothing in terms of content from any of the presentations. Honest. Please read the thing for yourself.
Conservative commentator Glenn Beck on Saturday drew a sea of activists to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where he championed a religious brand of patriotism and called on the nation to recommit itself to traditional values he said were hallmarks of its exceptional past.
On the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, steps away from where it was delivered, Beck and fellow "tea party" icon Sarah Palin staked a claim to King's legacy and to that of the Founding Fathers. They urged a crowd that stretched to the Washington Monument to concentrate on the nation's accomplishments rather than on its psychological scars.
"Something that is beyond man is happening," Beck said. "America today begins to turn back to God."
Boy howdy, I can really sink my teeth into that. Later on, we get this chunk of content:
Beck, a Fox News host, has developed a national following by assailing President Obama and Democrats, and he warned Saturday that "our children could be slaves to debt." But he insisted that the rally "has nothing to do with politics. It has everything to do with God, turning our faith back to the values and principles that made us great."
King's niece Alveda King, an anti-abortion activist, addressed Beck's rally with a plea for prayer "in the public squares of America and in our schools." Referencing her "Uncle Martin," King called for national unity by repeatedly declaring "I have a dream."
So Alveda King spoke (video here)? That's interesting, although I think it is a bit narrow to call her an anti-abortion activist -- period. I am sure that she considers herself both an ordained minister -- so this reference should, under Associated Press style, refer to her as the Rev. Alveda King -- and a human-rights activist. She is a former legislator in Georgia, too, elected as a Democrat. (Here is a piece that she wrote before the rally.)
By the way, if African-Americans are conservative on life issues, does that cancel out everything else that they do? Curious.
The key for journalists, once again, is not what anyone actually said at the Beck rally or at the counterpoint rally led by the Rev. Al Sharpton -- who is allowed, unlike King, to retain his ordination. What really matters, you see, is the political implications of these events. Quoting lots of religion talk might warp the template prepared in advance for the coverage.
One more detail struck me.
The simultaneous rallies rendered the country's political and racial divisions in stark relief.
Sharpton drew a mostly black crowd of union members, church-goers, college students and civil rights activists. ...
The Beck crowd, meanwhile, was overwhelmingly white, and many in the crowd described themselves as conservatives with deep concern about the country's political leadership and its direction.
OK, I like the attempt to give us a bit of insight into the composition of the Sharpton crowd. But where is the similar information about the faithful in the Beck congregation? Any church-goers? College students? Any Catholics? Conservative Jews? Human rights activists on issues such as international slavery, sexual trafficking, hunger, the right to life, etc.? Were the folks in one crowd worried about politics and the folks in the other crowd unconcerned about that subject?
Enough. Once again, I wish I knew more about what people on both sides actually said. I'd like to make up my own mind, if possible, about the content of both events.
It also sounds, to me, that if anyone should be concerned after the Beck event, it should be the whole Vice President Dick Cheney wing of moral libertarians who are not all that interested in social and religious issues. Right? Also, does this mean that the Tea Party Movement's leadership is slightly out of touch with its own base, in terms of thinking that economic issues are all that matters?