Proposed honor for Beck stirs up storm in Mt Vernon

by William Yardley, New York Times

When he is not calling the president a racist or finding some other way to infuriate plenty of Americans, Glenn Beck, the provocative and popular conservative broadcaster, occasionally drifts into reverie.

“I know it’s easy to romanticize the past, especially if you grew up in a small town like I did,” Mr. Beck told listeners of his radio program one day in March 2007. “But it seems to me that my hometown of Mount Vernon was full of leaders.”

Mr. Beck went on, recalling how the whole town seemed to turn out to fill sandbags when the dangerous Skagit River would rise and threaten to flood downtown.

“We were small enough to care about each other,” Mr. Beck said. “We were all in it together. It wasn’t about whose responsibility it was, whose fault it was, who you’d end up owing a favor to. You did it because it was the right thing. In Mount Vernon, you grew up knowing that you always had to do the right thing.”

In a ceremony here on Sept. 26, Mr. Beck is to receive the symbolic key to the city of Mount Vernon, a small logging town when he lived here as a boy and now a Seattle bedroom community of 31,000.

Yet the question many residents here are asking is whether giving Mr. Beck the key — a decision made unilaterally by Mount Vernon’s mayor, Bud Norris — is the right thing to do. It is far from clear that the people of Mount Vernon, where the demographics have shifted since Mr. Beck left as a teenager in the 1970s, are still all in it together.

“Why him?” many people wonder. “Why now?”

“It’s probably at least 60 to 40 against,” said Fred Lee, a barber on First Street who has trimmed prominent heads in Mount Vernon for more than 30 years. “That’s just a straw vote of people who come in here. It’s leaning that he probably shouldn’t come, mostly because of the controversial nature of the person.”

Noting how important political neutrality is to a small-town barber, Mr. Lee emphasized that he had not taken a position. Yet his informal customer poll seemed to carry credibility. On his wall hangs an award he received in 2001, from a previous mayor: the key to the city.

“I don’t think that anybody even knew I got it,” Mr. Lee said of the key, which noted his dedication to the area’s youth, whom he coaches in basketball.

“This,” he said of the attention over the honor for Mr. Beck, “is a different deal.”

Last month, several prominent advertisers withdrew commercials from Mr. Beck’s television program on the Fox News Channel after he called President Obama a “racist” with a “deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.” Although Mr. Norris said he first discussed the honor with Mr. Beck many months ago, he did not announce it until after Mr. Beck made his comments about the president in late July. A self-described conservative who is serving his second term, Mr. Norris would not say whether he agreed with Mr. Beck’s remarks about the president.

“I still feel good about recognizing Glenn and honoring him,” Mr. Norris said. “Because he’s got a political view that’s quite irritating to some people doesn’t mean that all the people feel that way or that we can’t listen to people who have different opinions than we have.”

Blogs have overheated. Local talk radio shows have fielded calls from across the country, with sentiments mixed. On a recent stroll downtown, Mr. Norris received several hugs and handshakes. Later, a woman held a placard: “Norris and Beck, Dumb and Dumber.” The editorial board of The Skagit Valley Herald called the honor “one of the mayor’s worst ideas.” The Young Democrats of Skagit County have held protests and plan to press the City Council to approve an ordinance requiring its approval before a key to the city can be awarded.

Mr. Norris has seemed to enjoy the attention.

“I’m definitely still glad that I did it,” he said.

The mayor said he had known Mr. Beck’s family in the 1970s, when Mr. Beck’s father, Bill Beck, ran City Bakery, a popular spot on First Street, a block from the river. The space is now used by a social service agency.

In a statement, Mr. Beck said, “I learned a lot of things at that bakery, but none more important than the value of a hard day’s work. The people of Mount Vernon are great people, and I’m humbled by this honor and proud to be from there.”

Mr. Beck has said that he got his start in radio when he won a contest as a teenager in Mount Vernon in which the prize was an hour of air time. By the time he was in high school, he and his family had moved about 30 miles north to Bellingham. It, too, has changed.

Last week, Bellingham’s mayor, Dan Pike, noting the matter in Mount Vernon, offered the key to his city to Jon Stewart, the host of “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central.

It was unclear whether Mr. Stewart would accept or whether he had ever been to Bellingham. Mr. Pike said Mr. Stewart was worthy of the honor for his “cogent yet comedic analysis of news events” and because he and the mayor had attended the same high school in New Jersey.

article originally published at New York Times.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey