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Milbank Finds the Humor in the ‘Tears of a Clown’

Dana Milbank’s entertaining book might as well be called: “I’ve Watched Glenn Beck so You Don’t Have to.”

The book, “Tears of a Clown: Glenn Beck and the Tea Bagging of America,” is mostly a collection of Beck’s outrageous tirades coupled with Milbank’s signature snark. Fans of Fox News’ hottest talking head may recognize it as a greatest-hits collection, but they would certainly take umbrage at Milbank’s portrayal of the tea party leader.

Some of the stranger Beckisms that Milbank highlights are well-known, such as the time he said President Barack Obama was “a racist” and had “a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.” Others are more obscure, like the time Beck went on TV distressed by the (false) idea that the Obama administration’s Federal Emergency Management Agency was readying concentration camps for political dissidents.

“I wanted to debunk these FEMA camps. I’m tired of hearing about them,” Beck said in March 2009. “You know about them. I wanted to debunk them. We’ve now for several days done research on them. I can’t debunk them.”

For weeks, Beck pushed this terrifying yarn, which included an interview with Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), before finally — and barely — admitting that it was false.

Although “Tears of a Clown” is an engaging character study of the political provocateur and media star, it lacks structure and simply feels like meandering through the mind of a very odd individual, albeit one with an enormous platform.

One chapter focuses on what Milbank describes as Beck’s “Nazi fetish.” In his first 14 months at Fox, Beck and his guests mentioned Nazis 134 times, Hitler 115 times, and the Holocaust 58 times. Another chapter underlines the many similarities between Beck and the 1930s demagogue Father Charles Coughlin.

Milbank also details Beck’s complex relationship with the truth, unearthing some perplexing fibs. Beck once made up a story about meeting Barbara Walters and Whoopi Goldberg of “The View” on an Amtrak train; on other occasions, he has said that his mother died when he was 13 years old when, in fact, he was 15 when she died.

Milbank ably explores Beck’s ideological roots, and if Beck is to be judged by the company he keeps — as he often does with his political opponents — there is reason to be alarmed. He has promoted “The Red Network,” a 1934 book written by Nazi sympathizer Elizabeth Dilling, who called President Dwight D. Eisenhower “Ike the kike” and President John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier the “Jew Frontier.” He is also a booster of the late Cleon Skousen, who strongly supported the far-right John Birch Society and blamed Communists for the 1970s push to ordain blacks as priests in the Mormon Church.

Beck calls himself a rodeo clown and an entertainer, someone not meant to be taken seriously. Milbank, too, has fashioned himself as D.C.’s court jester, a wry observer of political life, snickering at the foibles of powerful people from his columns in the Washington Post and from this book.

But Milbank seems to know, even if he refuses to say outright, that Beck’s rise is deadly serious. Milbank points out that Beck frequently uses violent language and claims the White House is coming after him. Over the years, he has proposed physical harm for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) and filmmaker Michael Moore.

In his last chapter, Milbank reveals that a video clip of Beck and Ron Paul discussing the FEMA camps was posted to a neo-Nazi website by a Pittsburgh man named Richard Poplawski, who wrote that the city was “ramping up the police state.” Weeks later, Poplawski, armed with an AK-47 assault rifle and other guns, killed three police officers leading to a four-hour standoff with a SWAT team.

Milbank writes that blaming Beck for the three deaths “goes a bit too far” but that “the episode does show how Beck’s words are inspiring the fringe, and bringing some of their wacky theories into the mainstream.”

Wacky? The Three Stooges are wacky. Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd are wacky. Whether Milbank admits it, Glenn Beck is no laughing matter.

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