Throughout the initial year of President Obama’s term, there has been much consternation over the administration’s “war” with the conservative press. With commentators such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham taking to the airwaves to label the president everything from a stealth socialist to a crypto-fascist, there is a feeling that an unprecedented, and possibly even dangerous, level of vitriol has entered our political discourse. Yet these right-wing stalwarts seem meek compared to Glenn Beck. The Fox News host, who famously accused the president of being a racist, has won millions of viewers with a mix of conspiracy theories, doomsday scenarios, and chalkboard diagrams of how radical subversives are boring their way into the supporting timbers of American government.
Beck’s influence has not been confined to the studio. To the tens of thousands of “Tea Party” protesters who descended on Washington last September, Beck was a hero—as well as a potential presidential candidate. At a November rally in Florida, he announced plans to use his “9/12” foundation to foster political activism. Beck’s ratings and his folk-hero status have led some to anoint him, along with former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, as the true leaders of the conservative movement and a possible dream ticket for 2012.
Whether Beck will succeed in translating his television fame into genuine political clout remains an open question. The long plastic hallway of modern media is littered with examples of commentators who mistook high ratings for electoral prospects. Then again, these are hardly normal times. As the president is fond of reminding us, America is experiencing its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. And in that era, Franklin D. Roosevelt observed that, under normal circumstances, many of his more outlandish detractors would not have gained traction with the public. “However, these are not normal times,” said Roosevelt. “People are jumpy and very ready to run after strange gods.”
One strange god in particular bedeviled Roosevelt—a media figure who, despite wide condemnation in official precincts, balky network sponsors, and White House opposition, managed to not only build a national following but to found a viable political movement. His name was Charles E. Coughlin, and maybe his story has some lessons for today.
Father Coughlin, as he was known to his adoring listeners, was without question the most powerful broadcasting force America has ever known. Working from his home parish at the Shrine of the Little Flower in suburban Detroit, the “Radio Priest” built an audience estimated as high as forty million listeners for his Sunday broadcasts—at a time when America’s population was less than half of what it is today. At the apex of his popularity, he received around 10,000 letters a day and employed a staff of more than a hundred clerks and four private secretaries just to answer his mail. His church eventually had to establish its own post office branch to cope with the deluge, along with its own motel and gas station to service the thousands of tourists who visited the shrine every Sunday.
And like his latter-day successors, Coughlin’s influence extended far beyond the confines of the studio. The first edition of his radio speeches, published in 1933 during the depths of the Depression, sold nearly a million copies. One Hollywood studio offered him $500,000 to appear as himself in the film The Fighting Priest (he turned it down). Out on the stump he regularly drew crowds of twenty or thirty thousand, packing venues like Chicago’s Soldier Field and New York’s Madison Square Garden.
His support was sought by congressmen, senators, and governors. Celebrities like Bing Crosby and General Douglas MacArthur made pilgrimages to meet Coughlin, as did foreign dignitaries visiting the United States. When Roosevelt decided to make his bid for the White House in 1932, one of his first moves was to seek (and receive) Coughlin’s blessing. Little wonder. A poll conducted in 1931 found Americans already considered Coughlin the most important public figure in the country after the president.
Remarkably, Coughlin had arrived in America a complete unknown less than a decade earlier. Raised in a religious family just across the Canadian border in Hamilton, Ontario, he was ordained in 1916 at the age of twenty-five. Coughlin was associated with the Basilian Order, which was sharply critical of the excesses of modern capitalism, particularly the sin of usury. The Basilian distaste for high finance stuck with him even after he left the order to become a parish priest in 1923.