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Glenn Beck at CPAC: ‘Progressivism Is a Cancer in America’

Glenn Beck closed the 37th annual CPAC with a passionate, personal, ideological-but-not-partisan speech about his career and America’s values. For 45 minutes he held the crowd in the palm of his hand, veering between tales of his small-town upbringing and denunciations of the progressive movement.

“Progressivism is a cancer in America,” said Beck, “and it’s eating our Constitution — and it was meant to eat our Constitution.”

For fans of Beck’s daily TV show (less so his radio show) it was a deja vu kind of spectacle. Throughout the day, rumors had circulated through the Marriott about a “special guest” who might introduce Beck. Maybe it would be Sarah Palin; maybe it would be George W. Bush. I talked to activists who worked their sources with both of those people, coming up dry. A few minutes into Beck’s speech, the “special guest” was revealed — the chalkboard Beck uses on TV. The crowd broke into cheers as loud as anything heard all weekend.

“It’s still morning in America,’ said Beck. “It happens to be a kind of a head-pounding, vomiting, hangover kind of morning in America.”

It was a largely optimistic speech, less doom-and-gloom, and less specific in its attacks on the Obama administration than Beck’s usual fare. And coming so soon after the loud boos that greeted Ron Paul’s CPAC straw poll win, the rapturous response was sort of ironic. Nothing Beck said would have sounded strange coming from Paul — a fact that became even clearer when Beck said America “does not have to spread democracy” at gunpoint, because its values will spread themselves.

Beck scored few hits on President Obama, even apologizing (tongue planted in cheek) for a joke about the president’s Nobel prize. His targets were broader — the Democratic Party, the GOP, and anyone else touched by progressive ideas.

“My name is the Republican Party and I have a problem!” said Beck, suggesting a confession for the GOP that multiple CPAC speakers — including some party politicians — had issued over the weekend. “I’m addicted to spending and big government.”

Beck compared the party to Tiger Woods, too, paraphrasing the golf star’s mea culpa. “I knew my actions were wrong, but I thought normal rules did not apply. Kind of like economic rules.” And he made a thinly-disguised attack on Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). “We have a guy in the Republican Party who says his favorite president is Theodore Roosevelt. Well, I thought so too, before I read Theodore Roosevelt.”

The only Republican who came in for praise was the former vice president. “I love Dick Cheney,” said Beck. “But it’s not enough just to not suck as much as the other side.”

Echoing another theme of the conference — really, of every CPAC — Beck dismissed the idea that Republicans needed to reach out by becoming less conservative. “We need a big tent,” he said sarcastically. “What is this, a circus? America is not a clown show! America is an idea that sets people free!”

When Beck talked about facts and history, he dealt with the origins of the progressive movement up through 1938. The crowd devoured it. Woodrow Wilson’s name drew loud and knowing boos; Calvin Coolidge’s name got boisterous cheers. After praising Coolidge, Beck sniped at the press (waving his hand towards the media booth) and mimed typing on a keyboard, guessing that we’d mock him for praising the “roaring twenties.” But Beck’s attacks on Wilson were more jarring — he went after the 28th president for proposing the League of Nations and compared his fateful whistlestop tour promoting it to Obama’s campaign for health care reform.

At other times, Beck trod more familiar ground. He got his first standing ovation for saying the free enterprise system let him work from being “in the fetal position” at a low point in his career to rebuilding so “I can stand here today.” His other big applause lines, though, came after he recited patriotic boilerplate, culminating with a reading of “the New Colossus,” the Emma Lazerus poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty.

Beck’s speech achieved a major goal — it perfectly captured the change underway in the conservative movement, the motivating worry about economic collapse and the grand appeals to history and Republican Party reform. When Beck wrapped, ACU’s David Keene walked onstage and wrote “CPAC 2010″ on the Beck chalkboard. The board, he said, would be taken to the weekly Wednesday meeting of conservatives “to remind us all of what we should be doing.”

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