Reporting from Washington —
Glenn Beck says he didn't intend to schedule a rally Saturday in front of the Lincoln Memorial on the anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. But it's a convergence of time and place that the conservative talk show host describes as "divine providence."
Some have used other words.
Civil rights leaders aligned with Democrats are recoiling at the Fox News pundit's plan to gather his faithful on the same steps where King delivered his call for racial justice. They're planning their own march in honor of the speech and criticizing Beck, saying he's trying to hijack King's legacy.
The debate is just one in a handful surrounding the event, which, despite its billing as an apolitical show of support for military families, has not dodged the trappings of partisan politics. Like the man behind it, the event seems to raise ire while preaching unity.
In the months leading up to the "Restoring Honor" rally and related events, Beck has accused the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts of religious discrimination. He has suggested the federal government has tried to limit such protests on the mall, without citing evidence.
And he's enlisted an undeniably political figure — former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin — as a headliner, while promoting the rally through a constellation of political groups often aligned with Republicans.
Still, Beck says, this has nothing to do with politics.
"This has everything to do with, 'Who are we?' " he said, over a soundtrack of soft piano in a video promotion of the rally posted on his website. "There is profound change happening in America, and there is a window of opportunity that comes in the lifespan of every republic, every civilization — a window of opportunity to reach for that brass ring or to miss it. We're not the people that we've allowed ourselves to become."
The explanation is typical Beck — high-flying, vague and salted with a dash of doomsday. His nearly nine-month-long promotional campaign has followed the same pattern.
When first announced in November, the rally was to be the scene for the unveiling of "The Plan" a 100-year outline to "save the country." But Beck quickly changed focus, opting for a less political event that would raise money for military families and honor a group of heroes.
He has said he believes the event will be "the turning point in the American experiment." He urged parents to bring their children, whom he called the best hope to "restore us." And he has suggested that this rally could be the last of its kind.
"The government is trying to now close the Lincoln Memorial for any kind of large gathering," Beck said on his radio show in June. "This may be the last large gathering ever to assemble at the Lincoln Memorial. Historic, historic."
The assertion caught fire online, but a spokesman for the National Park Service, which maintains the space and issues permits for protest, said it was "based on nothing."
"There is absolutely no attempt or move on the government's part, nor specifically on the National Park Service's part, to close off or to restrict free speech or any 1st Amendment activities on or below the step where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood to give his 'I Have a Dream' speech on Aug. 28, 1963," National Park Service spokesman Bill Fine said.
Asked to explain the statement, a Beck spokesman declined to comment.
Beck is hoping for a crowd of more than 100,000. There were an estimated 250,000 at King's 1963 address.
In response to what they see as Beck's hypocrisy, the Rev. Al Sharpton and other civil rights leaders have decided to hold their own rally.
Sharpton's National Action Network, the National Urban League and the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People are planning to march from a Washington high school to the site of a planned King memorial, just blocks from the Lincoln Memorial.
The original emphasis of their gathering was on closing educational disparities, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan is among those scheduled to participate. But recently, the groups' leaders have focused on Beck and Palin as philosophical opposites of King's supporters.
"In '63, they went to Washington for a strong national government to protect civil rights," Sharpton said in an interview. "He and Palin are going there for a weak national government and to advocate state rights."
Taking advantage of the flood of activists coming to town, other conservatives are planning events this week in Washington. The political advocacy group FreedomWorks, a leading organizer within the "tea party" movement and an advertiser on Beck's television program, is scheduled to hold a rally Friday featuring several GOP candidates.
Beck also has an event planned Friday. His radio production company has rented a stage at the Kennedy Center for "Divine Destiny," a program to illuminate the role of religion in the nation's founding and call for unity among those "sick and tired of hearing about how divided America has become," Beck's website says.
But the call for unity didn't get off to an amicable start. When a Kennedy Center official questioned whether the taxpayer-supported arts center could hold an event that included prayer, Beck responded as expected.
"And I'm like, 'Oooh, sue me,' " Beck mocked on his show. "And, Kennedy Center, arrest me."
The Kennedy Center turned to lawyers, who cleared the event, according to a spokesman.