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Beck prefers to tackle politicos and the PC police with impassioned monologues tempered with the comedic bits that have become his cable show's signature. Love him or loathe him, he's registered some seismic waves on the pop culture Richter scale. Media Matters for America, a liberal Web site that tracks conservative commentary, continually chastises him for his controversial comments including these bon mots: antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan is a "tragedy pimp" and former President Carter is "a waste of skin." As of January '07, he'd increased viewership in his timeslot by 65 percent and by 88 percent in the coveted 25-54 demo. His November '06 special, "Exposed: The Extremist Agenda," which chronicled how Middle Easterners are being schooled on hating Americans was the highest-rated program in Headline News history.
Earlier this year, Beck inked a deal to join Good Morning America as a guest commentator, after Diane Sawyer herself wooed him over a meal. ("She actually asked me to lunch!") As he recalls, the unlikely duo talked about "how television is trapped inside of itself." Clearly smitten by television news' über blonde, Beck adds: "She is amazing. I walked away from that meeting thinking, 'She really gets it.'"
Having survived drug and alcohol addiction ("two glasses a day -- but tall glasses, and all Jack Daniels"), with the help of AA and his newfound Mormon faith, Beck has said he is "genuinely happy for the first time in my life in the last 10 years," despite having earned the title of "Worst Person in the World" from MSNBC's Keith Olberman numerous times. It's clear from our conversation with Beck that a far greater slight would be not noticing him at all.
Do you think your outspokenness about your battle with drugs and alcohol has helped your career?
I read several interviews where you said after interviewing Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) -- the first Muslim ever to be elected to Congress -- and saying to him, in part, "I feel like saying, 'Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies,'" you would take back the wording of the question if you could. How often do you feel that way?
A lot. I'm on four hours a day, five days a week. As much as people write up the things I say, I also do a lot of comedy. You can't do that live for three hours a day without making mistakes. I'm celebrating my 30th year in broadcasting. How can you do something every day for thirty years and not say something and go, 'Boy that was stupid.'
|"No defense for [Imus], but I worry about any culture that decides to impose through fear, intimidation, protests, boycotts -- whatever -- to shut someone off and get them pulled off the air."|
With Imus' firing, do you feel the punishment fit the crime?
No. I think the crime, if you will, was absolutely despicable. There's absolutely no defense for Imus. I was surprised by the surprise. He invented the 'shock jock.' He's been saying these things forever. No defense for him, but I worry about any culture that decides to impose through fear, intimidation, protests, boycotts -- whatever -- to shut someone off and get them pulled off the air. I think that's for the individual to decide by turning the radio off. Let the market work through ratings. I was equally horrified when I heard a few days later that Tom DeLay said it was time to pull Rosie O'Donnell off the air. I don't agree with almost anything Rosie O'Donnell says, but I'm worried about the McCarthy-like atmosphere where people think we should curb speech. If you really appreciate freedom of speech, it's not less speech -- it's more.
What did you make of the noticeable silence from all the journalists who had been regulars on Imus' show?
We all have our own masters. We all have jobs. Wherever you draw that line is a personal decision. I personally think that if you didn't think Don Imus was a racist, you should have said so. I don't think he's a racist, I think he hates people equally. What I spoke out on -- and it was a difficult thing to do because we're in hit-and-run media -- was your right to be despicable. There were people in the media as soon as this happened on the left and the right -- Tom DeLay and Keith Olberman -- they both said, "Here's the list of the next people that we need to get out." That's not America. I thought we learned our lesson from the McCarthy days. You've got to able to be human -- to make mistakes. I make them. Everybody makes them. Let me put a microphone in your office for four hours and you tell me if you're not going to say something stupid that you're going to have to apologize for. One universal common phrase in real life is, "I am so sorry. I didn't mean it that way." If we can't accept that from people in media who are live every day, then we need to brace ourselves for a sterile, boring environment with absolutely no diversity and no debate. That's not good.
Have the powers that be ever privately asked you to back off or tone it down?
No. I have been asked to explain. For example, with Keith Ellison -- my producer was like, "What were you thinking?" It wasn't calling me on the carpet. I said it to Keith when we went off the air, "I didn't mean it that way." He was like, "No, I understand." I knew it was a mistake. I don't think I've ever been called on the carpet for anything. I had lunch with [CNN Worldwide president] Jim Walton recently. We didn't really trust each other when we first started. We didn't know each other. I said to him, "I hope I've proven myself to be a reasonable partner with you." He said, "Everything that you've said -- whether I agree or disagree with it -- doesn't come from a position of hate or anything else. I think you've proven yourself to be a very reasonable partner." I think he has, too. The day I come out with something hateful is the day I should be called out on the carpet.
What's the best thing you've done on your show?
The best thing we've done is twofold: remained fairly true, on a daily basis, to who we are; but that is also the worst thing we've done, in a way. We've been running so fast, so hard at times, that we have also not done that. We have to keep coming back and resetting because of the grind. That's what I find so fascinating about television -- it is neverending, always there. I tell people all the time, "You might like sausage, but you don't want to see it made." It is, "What are we doing tomorrow?" Panic! I don't have enough time. I run a magazine, my show, my radio show -- I get so bogged down that I don't have time to step back and say, "That's what everybody is doing, but it's not who were are."
You've said that the sound of Hillary Clinton's voice makes "blood shoot from my eyes," and that she "sounds like the biggest nag on the planet." When you say she "cannot be elected president because there's something in her vocal range," is that comedy or your real opinion?
I thought it was really funny, but I also mean that sincerely because if Fran Drescher was running, I'd be saying the same thing. If Fran Drescher was the biggest conservative on the planet, I'd be saying the same thing about her. It really has nothing to do with her political leanings, even though I'm not a fan of Hillary's. There is something about her when she speaks and really gets strident -- all I hear is, "Get up off the couch and take out the garbage." I just don't think that's electable.
Do you think this country is ready for a female president?
I think that if this country is not ready to elect a woman, we're in bigger trouble than I think we are [in]. I find it amazing that there are people that would say, "We can't elect a woman" or "We can't elect a black" or "We can't elect a black women." What is that? I'd vote for Condoleezza Rice -- from what I know about her now -- in a heartbeat. This is stuff that is east of the Hudson and west of Hollywood. I don't think people think that way. I think people want someone who is real. Bill Clinton, like him or not: The guy came off as genuine. Hillary doesn't. Maybe she's the most genuine person in the world, but she comes off too calculated.
Rudy Giuliani has got that bullhorn moment in him. He's honest. That's what people want. They want somebody who is not trying to be perfect, who is not trying to say, "I'm everyperson." I've voted for people that I've strongly disagreed with on a lot of things, but I prioritize. I'm never going to vote for a guy who agrees with me on everything because that person is lying because I'm a psycho. How can you rule the country if you agree with me on everything?
What do you think Obama's chances are at winning the democratic nomination?
I think that if this were not "The Clintons," he would be the candidate. I think the Clintons have far too much power and Bill is just too powerful of a motivator. He's good and she's so packaged. With all the money and everything else, I can't imagine her not getting the nomination. If she makes a critical misstep, then he'd be the guy. I disagree with almost everything he stands for politically, but I admire the man and that he is honest and has an ounce of integrity. God help us all, we need someone like that.
The biggest recent story has been the Virginia Tech massacre. Did you air footage of the shooter?
I think I aired a six-second clip and a nine-second clip. I've said I regretted doing it. I think I talked myself into thinking that it was okay to run it. I'm not sure if it was or not. I didn't like the way some were just capitalizing on, "Hey, look at this. Mayhem! Crazy dude with a gun." I aired part of it because, in my head, I was trying to make the point of playing him saying, "I'm anti-rich" and playing him saying "I'm Jesus Christ" because my point was we completely missed the whole story, and that was this is a sick guy in a culture that is all about fame and fortune, and this is what you get when you couple those things. That's why I played it. Before I played it, I said, "I'm going to show you these specific clips and you're not going to see this guy's face again." I don't even say his name. I never said his name on the air because that's what he wanted.
Are you at all worried that Rosie O'Donnell is going to pick you for her next celebrity smackdown?
(Laughs) Not at all. I think Rosie O'Donnell is a microcosm of the hypocrisy that the media just doesn't see. I'm on the front of everybody's burner the minute I misspeak and give a poorly-worded question to Keith Ellison. How many months ago was that and I'm being asked again about it in this interview? Rosie O'Donnell can get on ABC television and say the United States government blew up World Trade Tower number seven -- that's insanity -- and nobody is standing up and saying, 'That doesn't belong on television.' I don't believe she should be fired. I'm a capitalist. As long as there is a market for it, God bless you. [Editor's note: This interview took place before the announcement of O'Donnell's departure from The View due to a "contract dispute."] She can get on and say those things, but God forbid I get on and say, 'Ten percent of Islam, give or take five percentage points either way, is out of control and wants to kill every single one of us.' It's insane.
[NOTE: This interview contains excerpts, and has been edited for clarity.]