Right wingers rally in Washington

By Stephen Foley

The 300,000 people who attended the "Restoring Honour" rally in Washington were told not to bring political placards, and the speakers - even the former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin - did not cite President Barack Obama once.

But the Tea Party cheerleader Glenn Beck, who organised Sunday's event, was yesterday adamant that its success signified something of political importance for the United States: voters are deeply unhappy with the direction in which the country is headed.

The Fox News commentator had taken to the steps of the capital's Lincoln Memorial on Sunday, 47 years to the day after Martin Luther King delivered his "I have a dream" speech from the same spot, to deliver a kind of call to prayer and a return to traditional American values.

His critics accused him of stirring racial tensions, and the US media took a standoffish approach to declaring the meaning of the large conservative crowds that gathered.

Meanwhile, mainstream leaders of both parties were watching to see if the event might further energise conservative voters before November's elections that could result in the Democratic Party losing control of one or both houses of Congress.

A triumphant Beck declared yesterday that the event showed there was a yearning for something better from politics.

"You don't get that many people to come to Washington to stand there and have that kind of moment, without signs and without any political message, for no reason," he said.

"They don't do that because they are happy with things. A good number of people are not happy with the direction we are going. They are saying to our leaders: 'Where are you taking us?"'

The rally, ostensibly a fundraiser to honour American troops and to call for restoring God to the centre of American life, seems certain to keep Beck's brand of demagoguery at the centre of the pre-election debate.

The Republican establishment hardly knows how to handle the broadcaster, whose emotional warnings about impending socialism and moral degradation in the US have often landed him in personal trouble, but nonetheless have turned him into one of the most-watched hosts on Fox News.

The anti-tax Tea Party movement has swept aside numerous mainstream Republicans in favour of more right-wing candidates.

Political officeholders were not invited to the Restoring Honour rally, and other mainstream leaders stayed away, but Palin continued her quixotic campaign for the presidency in 2012 by making an appearance.

She urged the crowd to "never retreat" in the face of those who want to "fundamentally transform America".

Beck was criticised at a duelling rally in the capital for playing with racial symbolism by holding his event on the anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 - something the broadcaster says was a coincidence. He has been accused of playing on racial prejudices by painting Obama as alien to the values of mainstream America.

"They represent hate-mongering and angry white people," said Jaime Contreras of the Service Employees International Union, speaking at the smaller "Reclaim the Dream" rally. "All the happy white people are here."

Sensitive to the racial accusations, Beck rowed back - a little - on his explosive claim last year that the President is a racist with a "deep-seated hatred for white people".

On Sunday, he said he wanted to "amend" the charge against Obama. It is not racism, but "liberation theology" that the President practises, Beck said, and "people aren't recognising his version of Christianity".

The competing rallies were covered with an almost painfully even hand on most news channels, and the conservative Fox News, which has faced criticism for allegedly giving undue prominence to small Tea Party rallies in the past, did not interrupt its usual morning programmes and cut in only for the last hour.

Fox was not among the news organisations, however, that summarised the racial make-up of the crowds. Most others pointed out that those attending the Beck rally were predominantly white.

- INDEPENDENT

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