WASHINGTON — If luck had anything to do with it, Bob Beckel is sure he would be dead by now. A homeless guy stabbed him. Another guy fired his rifle and the ricochet struck Beckel in the chest. He has been in more bar room brawls than he can count.
If the life of Robert Gilliland (“Bob”) Beckel sounds like a character in a John O’Hara novel, at times his life has paralleled a character in a Eugene O’Neill play. Beckel’s father was “very abusive” toward him. Beckel became an alcoholic. He gave up booze for a few years, quit, drank again, quit, and drank again.
In 2002, Beckel reached some sort of bottom. Newly divorced from his wife, he called a young, $300-an-hour prostitute. Her two associates suspected Beckel was wealthy, and they extorted $50,000 from him. Beckel called the cops and the cops broke up the ring. The damage was not done, though.
“A 22-year-old female reporter calls me up on the phone and says, ‘Are you the Bob Beckel on TV?’ I said I was. The story hit the papers. CNN, my employer at the time, suspended me from the air. Worse, I couldn’t coach my daughter’s Little League team,” Beckel said in an interview Thursday.
Now 65, Beckel reflects on his life more and more. A copy of an unpublished memoir sits on his desk at his home in New York. He is proud of the manuscript and shopping it around, which he thinks a publisher will buy the rights to and release by January. His tentative title for the book: “I Should’ve Been Dead: A Memoir of Survival.”
Appearing as a soulful, rumpled, blunt, and politically incorrect Democratic populist has helped make Beckel a star — perhaps the star — of the Fox News show “The Five.” At 5 p.m. every weeknight, viewers around the country turn on their sets and watch Beckel opine on the latest outrage, crisis, and setback. They see a small bear of a man with a head full of blown-dry brown hair talk in a gravelly baritone and on most days, wearing striped suspenders.
Viewers who dismiss Washington pundits either as phonies, holier than thou, or boring find Beckel refreshing. A contestant on the ABC show “The Bachelorette” who admitted she slept with one date before announcing she was dumping him for another man was a “slut.” Muslim students who fail to denounce the prophet Muhammad for acts of violence that Muslims commit should be denied visas to the United States.
To progressives, Beckel is the house liberal on a “right-wing” network. His comments are considered boorish at best, and progressive groups have blasted him as a grouchy, insensitive old white man. Liberals’ fulminations have only added to Beckel’s appeal to conservatives. In the eyes of right-leaning Americans, Beckel is a liberal, but he’s a tough, old-fashioned liberal with a big heart who tells it like it is. Witness his early denunciations of Islamic extremists who killed Christians in the Middle East.
Beckel has heard people say he is conservatives’ favorite liberal. He does not dispute the charge; he just wishes he could monetize it. “If I had a dollar for every time someone said that to me, I would be a rich man,” he quipped.
(If Beckel’s humor is an act, it is effective. He told a story about 1984 Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale. Beckel insisted that Mondale use the line “Where’s the beef?” to criticize his main rival at a debate. “Mondale didn’t watch TV and he liked to speak properly so in debate prep he kept saying, ‘Where is the beef? Where is the beef’ I said, ‘No, no, it’s ‘Where’s the beef? Where’s the beef?’ Finally, he used it,” Beckel said).
Beckel’s career as a pundit comes after a three-decade-plus career as a Democratic operative and political appointee. He got his start working on Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1968. Only a sophomore in college, he worked as a low-level aide who organized and worked the telephones.
After Jimmy Carter became president in 1977, Beckel earned a job as an assistant director of the State Department. He helped convince 68 of the 100 members of the U.S. Senate to ratify two Panama Canal treaties in 1978. The notion that the United States should transfer ownership of the canal to Panama within a generation stoked nationalist resentments, especially in Republican ranks. (See this 1978 debate on PBS’ “Firing Line” between Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley Jr.). Beckel considers the treaties to be his greatest legislative achievement. “The idea that the Panamanians would shut the canal down was proven not true. In fact, business is booming, and they’re building a new one beside it,” Beckel said.
After Carter lost his re-election bid to Reagan in 1980, Beckel signed on as Mondale’s campaign manager. In the Democratic primary, Mondale faced a strong challenge from two-term Colorado Senator Gary Hart. By early March, Hart had won three of the four state Democratic elections. Mondale needed to halt Hart’s momentum. Beckel got an idea. His girlfriend at the time saw a Wendy’s television commercial in which three elderly women stare at a thin hamburger from a rival restaurant until one blurts out, “Where’s the beef?” Beckel thought the elderly woman’s line would serve as a riposte to Hart’s claim that he was the candidate of “new ideas,” and he urged Mondale to use the quip in a debate with Hart. Mondale’s use of the line became the most popular moment of the Democratic primary.
The signature moment of the general election was Reagan winning 49 states and Mondale one state (Minnesota, his home state) and the District of Columbia. The blowout defeat was historic, but Beckel bristles at the reminder his candidate lost. “I did 100 races and won 85 of them,” he volunteered about his career as an operative. His list of winners included two Senate candidates — Max Baucus in Montana and Tim Wirth in Colorado — and a House candidate — Bob Edgar in Pennsylvania.
Beckel built a successful career as a political and public relations guru. He is credited or, depending on your point of view, blamed for creating the “astroturf” campaign to support or defeat Congressional legislation: a lobbying effort that uses paid actors rather than constituents to sell its message. “It was real grassroots,” Beckel said. “We used real people in our direct mail.”
By the early 2000s, Beckel lived a life worthy of a profile in Washingtonian or George magazine. He was rich. He was on television; he was a regular political contributor to CNN. He had many friends, including Cal Thomas, a nationally syndicated Christian conservative. And he stopped drinking.
But Beckel was not at peace. He and his wife were divorcing, and the couple had two children together. According to a court affidavit that the smokinggun.com posted, Beckel solicited the services of 21-year-old prostitute Maryam Massihi. In the wake of the attempted extortion, CNN suspended Beckel, a co-host of the popular show “Crossfire.”
Around this time, Beckel turned to God. He had been an agnostic, but going through Alcoholics Anonymous made him realize he needed a higher power. Then Cal Thomas sent him a copy of “Evidence that Demands a Verdict,” a 1992 book Josh McDowell wrote to defend Christianity from attacks by atheists and agnostics.
Reading the book inspired Beckel. “My faith has not been a burning bush, but a gradual turn to the Lord,” Beckel said. “I have taken a leap of faith. I see the possibility of faith.” Beckel is quick to add that God’s grace had a bigger hand in his conversion. “He wanted me to be here. I think my responsibility is help alcoholics. I have no doubt that luck would not have saved me,” Beckel said.
Beckel was baptized as an Episcopalian but identifies as an Evangelical who attends a Presbyterian church. His conversion extends to his politics. Now he is pro-life on abortion. “This probably came to me 10 years ago. I read the Bible and it’s very difficult for me to see that God wants us to be pro-choice. I’ve been affiliated with pro-choice groups. (Now) I’m on pro-life boards,” Beckel said.
Some conservative Christian friends have urged Beckel to switch parties and register as a Republican. Beckel said he gives them the same answer every time: No.
“I have no interest in being a Republican. I’d rather be with Mussolini than with the Republicans. Pro-life is something that I believe in, but we Democrats believe government has an affirmative role to heal the poor and the sick and the lame and the most vulnerable among us,” Beckel said. President George W. Bush, too, argued for an expansive federal role to help solve many domestic ills. Might Beckel throw his lot in with big-government conservatives? Beckel dispatches the question. “Bush was for (the Iraq) War, and I didn’t support it.”
Beckel makes no bones about it. He is a liberal Democrat. Although he said some Great Society programs enabled rather than helped its beneficiaries, he views the federal government as more of a benign rather than malign force in American life.
Beckel’s political allegiance does not mean he despises conservatives, though. In 2007, he and Thomas co-wrote Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That is Destroying America. He thinks partisanship has been carried too far and should be reined in. “I tend to believe all this polarization divides our politics too much. I don’t like polarization,” Beckel said. “I try to reach out to my friends who are Republicans. They’re God’s children just like me.”
Mark Stricherz covers Washington for Aleteia. He is author of Why the Democrats are Blue.