A few years ago, I was invited to appear on Glenn Beck’s television show.  We were scheduled to discuss the nonsecurity spending Congress had stuffed into the supplemental appropriations bill being used to pay for the Iraq war: money for peanut farmers, spinach growers, etc.  (The Iraq occupation itself should probably fall into the category of nonsecurity spending, but that’s a story for another day.)

Other than sports and straight news, I watch very little television.  But I have appeared often enough on such programs to know the drill.  A young female producer called me for a preinterview.  On the radio, an uninteresting or inept guest can easily be shuffled off the air during an early commercial break.  TV tries to be more regimented, so interviewers like to have a good idea of what they are getting in advance.  It’s sort of like the cross-examining advice given to young lawyers: Never ask a question to which you don’t already know the answer.

The producer asked me to provide some technical analysis of the bill under discussion and a rundown of the points I’d make.  Seemingly satisfied with my answers, she hung up only to call back later and ask me to say exactly what I was going to say on the air, and I complied.  Later, I found myself sitting in a dark Washington studio across from a monitor featuring the disembodied head of Glenn Beck.  Much to my surprise, Beck’s opening monologue bore an uncanny resemblance to my own planned remarks.  My consternation must have shown, because the producer cooed at me through my earpiece, “Don’t be nervous; you’ll be great!”

That was when Beck was still on CNN as its token conservative commentator.  (Lou Dobbs was a little harder to classify.)  I muddled through with some lame jokes about Popeye the Sailor Man: Appropriators paying spinach growers through a war-funding bill must want our national defense to be strong to the finish.  Beck left CNN and went on to far greater success at FOX News, a much more natural habitat for conservative talkers.

At CNN Headline News, Beck had better ratings than everyone, except for Nancy Grace.  On FOX, he quickly shot to the top of his time slot, buoyed by early interviews with figures like Sarah Palin.  Beck also had a successful radio show and published six New York Times best sellers, reaching number one in four different categories—including children’s picture books.  By September 2009, Beck’s FOX show had higher ratings than the three competing programs on CNN, the spun-off Headline News, and MSNBC combined.

Beck was still dominating his time slot when FOX announced in April that he would “transition off his daily program” by the end of the year.  While still cleaning the competition’s clock, Beck’s ratings were down 40 percent with the crucial 25 to 54 demographic.  In the first quarter of 2011, his show had lost one third of its audience compared with the same time last year, when the number of viewers peaked at 2.78 million.  Even with a large audience, Beck’s controversies made it difficult to sell advertising at premium rates.  “Popularity doesn’t always translate into profitability,” media columnist Phil Rosenthal observed in the Chicago Tribune, “and the ‘Glenn Beck’ program was becoming a better business proposition for Beck than for FNC.”

As is the case with Rush Limbaugh, the showmanship is at least as important as the politics.  But where Limbaugh is an almost gleeful entertainer, Beck is more like a television preacher.  He gesticulates and emotes.  (He’s said to suffer from attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and watching his program supports the diagnosis.)  He cries on cue.  Unlike Limbaugh, Beck regularly has guests, such as Palin and disgraced congressional tickler Eric Massa.

The politics are important, however.  Beck inveighs against “commies and progressives.”  The first is to some extent a shtick, though he has called President Obama a racist (for which he has apologized) and a Marxist (for which he has not).  He is serious about his indictment of progressivism, drawing on sources ranging from Hayek’s Road to Serfdom to Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism.  He identifies most of the Democratic Party and even Republican leaders like John McCain as progressive.

Beck dabbles in activism to a far greater degree than Limbaugh.  He launched the 9/12 Project, both a precursor to and important component of the Tea Party movement.  Channeling Martin Luther King, Jr., Beck held a “Restoring Honor” rally at the Lincoln Memorial on the anniversary of the slain civil-rights leader’s “I Have A Dream” speech.  (Beck claimed the timing was coincidence.)

A recovering alcoholic and Mormon convert, Beck started out as a fairly conventional conservative commentator—more melodramatic than Limbaugh or Sean Hannity, but in substance the same.  During the George W. Bush presidency, he mostly rallied behind the President’s wars and criticized the Democrats.  In 2007, when former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul had their exchange about September 11 and foreign policy, Beck blasted Paul as a “dope” and warned, “If Republicans start thinking like this, we’re dead.”

On FOX, Beck became more radical.  He began interviewing Paul respectfully and repeating the congressman’s arguments against the Federal Reserve.  Having once likened Paul supporters to terrorists, he began to inch in their direction on foreign policy.  And as he concocted elaborate conspiracy theories, the popular host began to attract neoconservative detractors.

Beck emerged as a fervent critic of left-wing organizations like ACORN, a popular cause among mainstream conservatives now that a former community organizer was in the White House.  But Beck really hit pay dirt when he went after an obscure green group called the Apollo Alliance, whose board member Van Jones became President Obama’s “green czar.”

A black former Maoist, Jones had a radical and criminal past.  In 2004, he signed a petition demanding further investigation into whether the U.S. government had foreknowledge of the September 11 terrorist attacks.  And now Jones was ostensibly in charge of Obama’s effort to create “green jobs,” an economically dubious environmental initiative that was lavished with billions of dollars from the massive $787 billion stimulus package.

The lines were easy enough for Beck to draw on his whiteboard.  “Now, how much of a role did Van Jones or the Apollo Alliance and their left-leaning allies have in crafting the stimulus package?” he demanded.  Soon Republican congressmen were being peppered with questions about Jones and the Apollo Alliance at town-hall meetings.  Jones was ultimately forced out of the White House.  David Weigel, a reporter who covers the American right, argued, “viewer for viewer and listener for listener, [Beck] has a more direct impact on the conservative movement and the GOP base than any other conservative personality.”

Most conservatives cheered the ouster of Van Jones, a dime-store leftist, but furrowed their high brows at Beck’s subsequent conspiratorial diagrams.  They were particularly embarrassed when Beck began to fulminate that the unrest in Egypt and Tunisia was part of an elaborate plot by radical Islamists (both Shiite and Sunni) to work together with China, Russia, and left-wing American hippies to bring about the end of Western civilization.  “In Beck’s bizarro world,” wrote U.S. News & World Report blogger Scott Galupo, “the Ayatollah Khomeini and Abbie Hoffman are like the Ponch and John of anti-Americanism.”

Peter Wehner, a professional George W. Bush apologist, complained on Commentary’s website that Beck was “harmful to the conservative movement” and the “most disturbing personality on cable television.”  Wehner concluded, “Beck seems to be a roiling mix of fear, resentment, and anger—the antithesis of Ronald Reagan.”  Weekly Standard editor William Kristol fretted, “When Glenn Beck rants about the caliphate taking over the Middle East from Morocco to the Philippines, and lists (invents?) the connections between caliphate-promoters and the American left, he brings to mind no one so much as Robert Welch and the John Birch Society.”

Authentic conservatives who admire Beck also see parallels to the John Birch Society. The Constitution-loving JBS has frequently done work more valuable than that of the respectable right, if unfortunately cluttered with conspiratorial junk.  But with Beck, it is sometimes difficult to separate the trash from the treasure.  And while Beck is for the moment willing to align himself with nonimperialist conservatives, let us not forget whom his conspiracy theories tend to empower.

However unseemly they may find Beck, it is boosters of the Bush Doctrine who benefit when ordinary Americans believe that we are one Middle Eastern war away from a caliphate in Kansas, that opponents of the Iraq war are objective allies of radical Islam, that terrorism is better prevented by containing George Soros than by controlling Muslim immigration.  Such prejudices are far more helpful to Bill Kristol’s agenda than to Ron Paul’s.  And without them, the Republican rank and file might have been closer politically to Paul than to Kristol during the Bush presidency.

Glenn Beck will leave his show as the third-most popular cable host.  He is going to continue to be involved in projects with FOX and his occasionally interesting news website, The Blaze.  Reportedly, he’s been talking to Billy Graham and becoming more interested in religion than in politics.  Not surprising.  Beck has always had that old-time-religion feel to him.