Mainstream media were taken aback when television and radio talk show host Glenn Beck recently hosted a rally on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The throng of people assembled to celebrate and hear more about religious and civic values than about partisan politics.
Naturally, the likes of CBS News trotted out "experts" that declared the crowd to be about 80,000 people. Take it from someone who used to perch on the balcony of the Capitol to watch events: Even the folks at CBS had to be laughing among themselves at such an underestimation of the crowd's size.
We all know it was really hundreds of thousands. We know, too, that there was no politically charged rhetoric that day. Instead, the rally was a new high point in the meteoric career of the unusual Beck. The self-taught historian appears to be grasping for something beyond just politics. He was long dismissed by media elites as a flake. Now his detractors are starting to fear him as much as they loathe him. He's becoming a cultural force.
Yet none of this diminishes the work and influence of Beck's Fox News colleague Sean Hannity. In my 2008 book on the presidential race, I noted that in the closing days of the Obama-McCain race, then-candidate Obama seemed more obsessed with the comments and challenges coming from Hannity on his TV and radio shows than with anything John McCain had to say.
Hannity was warning that Obama's historical ties to extreme liberals -- now often called "progressives" -- did not bode well for the prospective make-up of the staff of an Obama White House, or of the overall tone of his administration.
As an objective pollster, I did as many did in giving President Obama the traditional "honeymoon period" of suspended judgment. Not Sean Hannity. As soon as the president took the oath of office, Hannity was questioning the agenda and the personnel decisions of the new administration.
Hannity's fans know that he is unabashed in his willingness to fight for a cause before it seems remotely winnable. Over the last year, he was among the first to see that congressional Democrats were in serious trouble of losing majority control in the House, and perhaps even the Senate.
The near-mystical aura surrounding Beck has been the subject of intense analysis and scrutiny. His mixture of historical context for contemporary issues, dedication to a higher cause and rigorous self-examination has made him an intriguing figure with a compelling message.