The first thing you learn about Glenn Beck, the syndicated radio and TV talk-show phenomenon, is that he is usually doing several things at once. This morning, for instance, he's eating breakfast while doing an interview at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City, biting off words and a croissant at the same time.
"Hope you don't mind if I eat while we talk," says Beck, who, as usual, is pressed for time.
Multitasking is Beck's M.O. On airline flights, a writer sits next to him recording or taking notes as Beck speaks for a book Beck is "writing." On a drive from Salt Lake City to Idaho during a family vacation, an assistant slides into the seat next to him to record his words for the masses again.
During his daily commute from Connecticut to New York and back, he responds to e-mails, reads newspapers and books, does phone interviews and researches show topics on videotape.
To fit everything in, he often eats lunch and participates in conference calls while walking from his radio studio to the Time-Warner Center.
"I've never been so tired," says Beck.
Besides hosting a daily three-hour radio talk show, the 43-year-old Beck also hosts, writes and produces a daily one-hour TV show, "writes" and records books (two of them at the moment) and a blog, serves as editor and chief of Fusion Magazine, and writes and produces comedy stage shows and fully orchestrated Christmas shows, including one that will come to Salt Lake City Saturday, in addition to making hundreds of speeches around the country each year.
Beck himself has become an industry, all of it based on sharing his opinion of the world with the world. It's talk, talk, talk, talk. His radio and TV discussions, delivered with a style that is alternately bombastic, self-deprecating, caustic, silly and humorous, cover everything from politics, "American Idol," parenting and political correctness (a favorite target) to Islamic extremism, selecting a video with his wife on a Friday night, the upcoming season of "24," adoption and anything else you can imagine.
Along the way, he has opened up his own life to the world and invited everyone in. His alcoholism, his recovery, his mother's suicide, his divorce, his Mormon conversion, his remarriage no subject is off limits.
"People get invested in not just what he thinks but how he is living his life, his challenges, what he does for fun," says Christopher Balfe, CEO of Beck's Mercury Entertainment Group.
"The Glenn Beck Program" boasts the third-largest radio audience in the nation, attracting more than 5 million listeners a day on 280 stations. Another 1 million people watch Beck's show on cable's Headline News each weeknight. Beck's Web site, GlennBeck.com, receives more than 3 million visitors a month. Some 125,000 people have seen Beck perform one of his live stage shows.
How big has Beck become in just six years since he made the leap from DJ to talk-show host? After calling out President Bush on the Iraq war on the air one day, he received a phone call from the White House. "The president would like to meet with you for an hour," a White House official told him. He flew to Washington for a one-on-one, off-the-record meeting with President Bush. (More on this later.)
Over breakfast in Salt Lake City a few days later, Beck shakes his head in disbelief as he ponders the turn of events that led him from a 12-step program to the Oval Office.
"If I were not to stand in awe of my life, I would be a most ungrateful son of our Heavenly Father's," says Beck. "It is a full-fledged miracle."
Beck's story is familiar to anyone who listens to the show. Only a few years ago he was an ornery disc jockey who was studying religion and philosophy and searching for some deeper meaning in his life while recovering from divorce and alcoholism. He found that meaning in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his second wife, Tania.
Beck, who grew up in the Seattle area with two sisters and a stepbrother, describes his humble roots this way: "I'm a schmo. My family never made more than $25,000 a year. We're all bakers for generations." He was 8 years old when he received a collection of records from the "golden age" of radio. Mesmerized by the stories of Orson Welles, among others, he decided he wanted some role in radio.
At 13, Beck won a local radio contest to be a DJ for an hour. That led to three on-air jobs at three different stations, although he likes to note that he was fired by all three of them on the same day a year later.
After graduating from high school, he worked for three stations in 13 months. He worked briefly for K96 in Provo, but he says he wore out his welcome quickly "by hanging out with the wrong crowd." From there, he took another DJ position in Washington before moving on to Corpus Christi, Texas, where he became the youngest morning DJ in the country. That led to top 40 shows in Baltimore, Houston, Phoenix and Washington. Soon he was wealthy, successful, married and the father of two children.
But all was not well. Beck's alcoholic mother had committed suicide when he was 13 (she drowned herself in a bay near Tacoma). Later, one of his brothers also took his life, and another brother died young of a heart attack. Add a raging case of attention deficit disorder Beck takes medicine for ADD and you had a boiling pot of anger, fear, insecurity and ego all mixed together. To the world, Beck was a likable wise guy, but inside he was all those other things. He turned to alcohol and drugs.
"I was taking drugs every day of my life since I was 16 years old," he says. "I was a self-hating egomaniac. I thought I was not smart enough or talented enough. I thought I was destined to repeat my mother's life. I was a fraud and I was successful. I was a cutup in class, but the teacher liked me. I was the one you didn't want to go out with your daughter but you didn't know it."
At the height of his DJ career, he was drinking a gallon of Jack Daniels a week "and most people had no idea," he recalls. "One reason I drank like that is I couldn't slow down enough to play with my kids. I had to be doing something. After two minutes I was losing my mind."
He flinches visibly when he recalls his behavior in those days. He once fired an assistant for bringing him a ball-point pen instead of a Sharpie. On another occasion he grabbed a producer by the collar and hoisted him nearly off the floor, telling him he would eat him "for (expletive) breakfast." He fired the man.
"I was a monster," says Beck. "I just wasn't a good guy. I was a scumbag."
Sitting in a Salt Lake restaurant, Beck recalls a dream he had many years ago, and the tears begin to flow.
He was standing in a flattened, desolate cornfield that was sliced by a long straight road. At the end of the road there were greenish-black storm clouds gathering with some evil portent. A voice from behind asked him which way he was going. Beck turned to find a withered, grimy old man. Beck replied that he was not going toward the storm. The man took his hand and guided him through the clouds to the other side of the storm.
"It's so warm here," Beck is saying, as he describes the dream. He chokes on his words and stops momentarily to check the flow of tears.
"It's sooo warm. I could actually feel the warmth of the sun on my skin. Everything was in vivid color. The grass was so green. And then I turned to look at the (old man), and I saw him for a fraction of a second. I saw part of him, and he was made of light, vivid white, and his beard was like fiber optics shooting light. I saw that and woke up."
Beck wipes the tears from his eyes and continues. "That dream changed my course. It told me, Glenn, you're in the middle of nowhere. If you want life and an afterlife, you've got to move through things you're afraid to look at."
The dream, combined with a quote he read from Thomas Jefferson, started Beck on a personal search for religion in 1995. It occurred just as Beck was facing up to his alcoholism after years of denial.
"I took Thomas Jefferson's words to task," says Beck. "He wrote a letter to his nephew, Peter Carr, in which he stated, 'Fix Reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason than of blindfolded fear.' I told myself, I don't believe anything. I will only put those things back that I know I believe. It was like building a person all over again."
Beck dived into the task as only someone of his obsessive, intense nature would. He enrolled at Yale to study theology, although he quickly ran out of money and lasted only a semester. He then threw himself headlong into his own private study. He read everything he could find on religion, metaphysics, philosophy and the cosmos, buying a dozen books at a time books by Einstein, Plato, Stephen Hawking, Billy Graham, Pope John Paul II, etc.
"I'd buy Pope John Paul's book and then ask myself, who would the pope tell me not to read? Well, probably Nostradamus, so I'd buy his book. It was the library of the insane," says Beck.
By now, Beck's fall was complete. He lost his family through divorce he says his "spiritual journey" cost him his marriage. ("My wife didn't want to go that way; I knew that I would be drinking again if I didn't have something bigger.") He also lost his star in the radio business. Viewed as talented but temperamental and difficult to work with, he took a series of pay cuts and shows with increasingly smaller audiences, and agents refused to represent him.
His religious search and the fight to overcome alcohol got a boost with his chance meeting of Tania in 1998. She recognized his voice from the radio and introduced herself.
After another chance encounter, they didn't see each other for many months until Beck was about to succumb to the temptations of alcohol again.
As Beck tells it, "I got down on my knees and said, 'Lord, I can't do it anymore. I've tried to find you. I can't stay sober anymore. This Thursday I'm going to a bar and order Jack and Coke. Please, put a roadblock in my way.' I prayed hard every night until Thursday. Nothing happened. I went to the bar. I was angry. I'm thinking, 'Lord, I've begged you for help. There's no relief here. I ordered Jack and Coke. I took it in my hand and turned around and saw Tania. I knew she was my roadblock. She was looking right at me. I put the drink down and went to her and asked her if she would have a cup of coffee with me some other place. We've never been apart since."
After dating for about a year, they began discussing marriage, but she insisted that they find a church first. As Tania recalls, "I expressed my strong belief that we had to be on the same path spiritually if we were going to get married and have children. I grew up with parents who are still married today, after 39 years, because they put the Lord in the center of their marriage."
Beck resisted organized religion, and his research did nothing to change his mind. "Please, have you read the Council of Nicaea?" he remembers saying at the time. "It doesn't make sense. I went to one church in which the pastor was an atheist. He actually told me, 'You know, I don't believe in God; but if there was (a God), we should serve him."'
Beck agreed to make a church tour anyway.
Each Sunday, Beck, Tania and his two daughters from his previous marriage, Mary and Hannah, visited a different church, searching for one in which they felt comfortable. A longtime friend and Mormon, Pat Gray, called and told Beck, "Are you really going to all these churches? You owe it to me to go to my church one time."
Beck recalls, "I told him, 'I'm never going to be a Mormon. You people are freaks.' But he said I owed it to him to go, and we did."
After attending an LDS service, one of Beck's daughters asked him, "Could we go back there next Sunday? I feel so warm inside." Beck agreed. "We didn't see anything that drove us crazy," he says but he maintained a heavy dose of cynicism. "OK, we'll go back to that church until they say something that hacks off Dad," he said at the time.
He remembers that one day in Sunday school class the teacher asked for questions. "I thought, watch this; we'll be in the car in 15 minutes," says Beck. "I asked them, 'Where is Gandhi? He seems like a guy Jesus would hang with. He helped people. He didn't wear pants for a long time. Anyone in class like to answer that?' They told me where he was. It made perfect sense. I was stunned."
Six months later Beck was baptized, in October 1999.
"Next to marrying my wife," says Beck, "it's the best thing I've ever done."
Looking back, Beck likes to say he never had a chance. "The lord has been stalking me my whole life. Every step of the way there would be a Mormon in my path. They were the first ones I would meet at work and gravitate to. I am God's most impertinent child. The Lord has been so close and visible in my life because I am too stupid to get it like everybody else. He's going to be worn out by the time I die."
The day after his baptism, after being turned down for years by agents, Beck received a call from an agent wanting to represent him. One thing quickly led to another, and Beck, who had wanted to switch to the talk-show format, landed a talk show in Tampa, Fla.
Eighteen months later he was offered a nationally syndicated show by Premiere Radio Network. "The Glenn Beck Program" made its debut in January 2002 on 47 stations. It has grown ever since then.
Outspoken, blunt and confrontational on the air, Beck wrestles continually to reconcile the man he is on the radio and the Mormon he wants to be. When Beck was to be ordained into the LDS priesthood, his name was presented to the congregation for a sustaining vote, as is customary in the church. In a highly unusual occurrence, one man opposed the ordination, later telling local leaders, "Have you heard his show?"
Local church leaders explained that they believed Beck was worthy and ordained him anyway.
"I was heartbroken for the guy who raised his hand," says Beck. "I agreed with him. You know, at first I told people on the air that I was a Mormon all the time, but as I became more and more converted and saw others in the church I wanted to be like, I stopped saying it. I didn't want people to think that's the way Mormons are.
"The show is such a balancing act. I do stuff on the show every day that I regret or question. My language is loose. I'm just different. Every day I get off the air, I think, 'Lord, help me be better. How do I balance this and be a good reflection of you?' I don't think I hit it very often."
He rages on the air against politicians, political correctness and, among other things, the Republican Party (he considers himself a conservative but believes Republicans have lost their way). Whatever his opinion, it carries enough clout that he was summoned to the White House, where Bush explained himself to the radio host but insisted the conversation was off the record.
Beck, who thinks that leaving Iraq now would be the worst mistake since slavery, had demanded that the president stop fighting the war halfway and simply win the war, because this was a strategy Americans would rally around. Beck left the White House stunned and awestruck with his sense of Bush's command of the situation.
"The thing is," Beck says, "he's not the guy you see on TV. I talked to (CNN's) Wolf Blitzer, and he said the exact same thing. It's amazing."
"He is clear and focused, and there are no hems and haws. I would not want to sit across the table from him as an enemy. He said a few things that were breathtaking, and my immediate response was, 'Why are you not saying this?' and he explained. I can't quote him. All I can say is that he has Abraham Lincoln-honorable reasons ... he has chosen not to say certain things. But (the Iraq war) is going much better than people think."
Beck's rants earn him millions of fans but also a share of enemies, which comes with the talk-show territory. He stays in hotels under an alias, and never the same hotel in which he has a speaking engagement. He is followed everywhere by a large man named Adam, whose primary job is security.
"I take care of him and his family," says Adam, standing by the entrance to a large room where Beck is speaking. "Some people don't like him. We have had some situations that required action; unfortunately, that's the world we live in."
Balfe believes Beck's on-air personality is vastly misleading. If he was once a prima donna who was prickly to work with, he seems to go out of his way to undo the meanness of his former self. He once bumped into a group of fans outside his radio studio and invited them to eat lunch with him, his treat, and worries constantly about how he treats people.
"He is much more concerned and more serious about how he treats people than he would come across on the air," says Balfe. "None of that is the real Glenn. You can't imagine how much all of us love our jobs here. We've been with him a long time, and you don't see that often with people who become famous and get a TV show."
Beck's on-air intensity might belie it, but Tania, along with his religious conversion, has been a calming presence for him. Beck's staff has noticed that at some point during his biannual two-week road trips for the stage shows that Beck becomes withdrawn and increasingly pensive. Their solution is to arrange, unbidden, for Tania to fly in from Connecticut.
"I'm sorry to say I'm a leech on Tania," he says. "I see her as a power source. I need to have her around me, and my staff sees this. She is a dynamo of goodness."
"He treats me like a queen," says Tania, a quiet, petite blonde with vivid blue eyes. "He is an amazing husband."
They married three months after they were baptized, in 2000, and were sealed in the LDS temple a year later. They hoard family time where they can get it.
Beck's driver picks him up at 6 a.m., and he's in the studio by 7 prepping for his shows, followed by the three-hour radio broadcast from 9 to noon, followed by more meetings from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m., then preparation for the TV show from 1:30 to 3, then taping the TV show from 3 to 6, and then home, although there are occasions he will work until midnight on one of his other projects.
"I'm tired just being in the building with him," says Balfe. "But he has to perform. He has the ability to turn it on."
Beck, who says he gets five hours of sleep "on a good night," makes a point of being home to have dinner with his family and to read to their two children, Raphe, 3, and Cheyenne, 18 months. He talks to Mary, who is 19 and has cerebral palsy, and Hannah, 15, by phone daily and tries to visit them regularly.
"It's so sweet to see how excited Raphe and Cheyenne get when they hear the car pull up to see the smile on his face when he sees them running to the door yelling, 'Daddy's home!"' says Tania. "There is nothing more important to him than his family, and that is clearly displayed through his actions."
For a time, Glenn and Tania couldn't have children of their own. After much discussion, they decided to adopt. Their adoption agency told them to spread the word, because word of mouth often produced results. Beck did that and then some. He took his search on the air to his millions of listeners.
Predictably, he was deluged by e-mailed responses. For reasons no one can explain, a woman who is hired to sift through the 500 to 1,000 pieces of mail that come to Beck each day was struck by a note from a young woman in Texas and forwarded it to Beck's radio station.
Strangely, the computer at the station crashed, according to Beck, and only one e-mail got through the one from Texas. After a background check, the Becks flew to Texas and met the mother. They adopted Raphe. Eighteen months later, they were able to have their own child, Cheyenne.
"We were supposed to have this child," says Beck. "I knew as soon as we adopted, Tania would get pregnant."
To spend any time with Beck is to know he is still building the person he set out to build years ago. He is still driven and angst-ridden, and he still finds it difficult to slow down. He turns to painting when he can to find escape. He paints landscapes, and, as he is wont to do, his deep streak of perfectionism makes it sometimes more than a relaxing hobby.
"I am easily frustrated," he says, and most of his paintings wind up on the floor of a closet, unfinished. After discussing this on the air once, Beck received a call from Peter Maxx, a famous pop artist whose psychedelic work was the rage in the 1960s and '70s. Maxx said he was a fan of the show and offered to give Beck painting tips. His advice: "Relax, let go, trust yourself." Which Beck found to be curious since a few days earlier he was given the same advice, almost verbatim, for life in general during a meeting with a church leader.145 comments on this story
"After Peter told me the same thing, I thought, 'OK, God, I get the message,"' says Beck.
"I so overanalyze everything. It has changed the way I work."
After that, he produced five paintings in a week and none turned out the way he envisioned them, but he framed them anyway. "I think I had finished five paintings in my whole life," he says. "I stopped trying so hard."He hopes he can do the same with the rest of his life. He hopes, he says, to see "the miracles in my life and the people who pop up along the way. I need to trust and let go."