My journey deep into the heart of Glenn Beck country began when I caught a glimpse of the sobbing commentator on TV while waiting for a plane. I thought he was a televangelist at first, but it seems that he is instead a true patriot who can't suffer the reckless destruction of his beloved country by a racist African American president, among others, without tears.
I was tempted to cry as well, for different reasons, until laughter seemed like the better medicine.
The experience left me with questions: Who could take this man seriously? And was there a Beck fan out there who could make me see his appeal?
There are people, I'm sure, who wonder how anyone can watch MSNBC commentator Keith Olbermann -- or read my columns, for that matter. But this cultural divide is destroying America, and maybe we all need to understand each other a little better.
My search for Beck followers began on the Internet, where Beck fan clubs popped up on my screen like a virus.
"Join a Glenn Beck Meetup Group near Los Angeles," said one site, which listed fan clubs and details about tea parties and other gatherings in the name of liberty and freedom.
The Santa Clarita group boasted 82 members.
"I'm twenty years old but my eyes are open," a new member named Rachel said on the group's website, vowing that "we will win this fight against radicalism."
"I love my God, family and country and want to save this country from ruin," wrote Maureen from Sylmar.
When I called Maureen by phone, her mother answered and said her daughter was out but that she shared her views: "This country is being hijacked."
"I'm a hard-working American guy that wants to be able to worship Jesus Christ, go shooting, say what I want and enjoy life," wrote the Santa Clarita group organizer, Jason Hole. "By the way," he added, "our government is preparing for civil unrest right now. I've seen documentation that states people will be considered terrorists if they wear blue jeans and talk excessively about the constitution. You're thinking I'm a kook, right? Look it up and you'll find it to be true."
When I called Hole, who works as a window washer, I could hear his squeegee in the background. "Glenn Beck is expressing what everybody is feeling," he told me.
And what is that, exactly?
That the country has moved away from the core values of the Founding Fathers. Hole said that he had "studied under" a guy he met at a gym and that this teacher opened his eyes to the abuse of federal authority, which President Obama will only make worse.
Hole said Obama has a "socialist, communist, fascist agenda" that must be stopped, because we're headed for tyranny and "fleeing from everything in the Constitution." He also said that when taxes are taken out of his paycheck, "that is stealing."
I pointed out that he had driven to work on roads paid for by those taxes, but he wasn't about to be diverted. He said he opposed a public option as part of healthcare reform, but said he was planning to switch to another private healthcare plan because of disappointment with his current provider, which isn't covering the care he needs.
And what about the tears? Does Hole believe Beck is weeping or pandering?
"I think you're right about the crying," Hole said. "The guy is an actor."
There's another thing Hole doesn't like about Beck, he admitted.
"Beck has said that anyone who has questions about 9/11 should be in prison."
Beck, he explained, doesn't believe it was an "inside job" involving U.S. agents.
And Hole does?
"I know it was an inside job," he said.
Hole suggested I talk to his uncle, Bill Gausnell, a member of the Beck fan club, so I drove up to Gausnell's town house.
Gausnell, a Vietnam vet and retired healthcare consultant and computer systems analyst, told me his views aren't as extreme as his nephew's. He said he was honored to have met John F. Kennedy while in the military, and he once campaigned for Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). But he's now a Republican who is "pretty much a middle-of-the-road, average American when it comes to politics."
And what's the appeal of Glenn Beck?
"If you listen to him you've heard him say, numerous times, he's not a Democrat and he's not a Republican. What he is, he's an American."
Beck is right, Gausnell said, when he warns that the country is on the road to socialism.
"Obama scares the hell out of me," he said, adding that he believes some of Obama's key appointees are communists and that we may well lose our rights to free speech and to bear arms.
I don't know about gun ownership, but it seems to me that when a TV commentator can denounce everything a president does, and even call him a racist who hates white people, we're not in immediate danger of losing the right of free speech.
My next visit in Santa Clarita was with Hole's friend and guru from the gym, Jeff Sykes, who runs a nutrition shop. Sykes, it turns out, is not a member of the Beck fan club and said he doesn't even watch the show, in part because it's just that, a show rather than an honest examination of what ails America.
Sykes calls himself a constitutionalist who believes the federal government has assumed responsibilities that should be left to the states. He also believes, as does Hole, that 9/11 was "an inside job."
By whom and to what end?
He couldn't finger any specific person or group, but he was sure that the Twin Towers had been rigged with explosives and that the attacks were part of a conspiracy to consolidate wealth and power and to deny liberties.
Fortunately, I'd just eaten one of Sykes' energy bars, so I had a bit of staying power. I could even go along with the latter part of his claim -- that the threat to our security has been used to deny civil liberties. I'd go even further and say 9/11 was used to rally support for unjust wars. I also agree with Sykes that our two-party system is hopelessly corrupted by money.
But we returned once more to our separate planets when he told me he finds it interesting, and very suspicious, that the Washington monument is actually an Egyptian obelisk.
I thanked Sykes for his time and drove over to a new office building, where Hole was washing windows.
He is a soft-spoken, very polite chap trying hard to understand himself and the world around him. He told me his Glenn Beck support has actually diminished somewhat since he began learning the truth about America from Sykes and that other than the tea parties to protest taxation without representation, there had been only one official meeting of his Beck fan club since February.
Still, he shares many of Beck's values, which coincide with those of both the Constitution and the Ten Commandments.
I was getting dizzy by then. Maybe the 100-degree heat had something to do with it. I thanked Hole for being so forthcoming and then I hit the road, driving past Magic Mountain and out of Glenn Beck country at a good clip, headed for home.