WASHINGTON - The Glenn Beck faithful arrived at the Lincoln Memorial by the tens of thousands Saturday from Minnesota and other states, answering his call to "restore honor" in America on the 47th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, delivered on the same spot.
Unlike the iconic civil rights march in 1963, the conservative broadcaster's gathering drew an overwhelmingly white, middle-class crowd with appeals to patriotism, faith in God and a desire to see the government get out of people's lives.
It also drew counterprotesters who said they were offended by Beck's use of the King anniversary for partisan advantage 65 days before fall elections in which the control of Congress may be at stake.
The half-day gathering, which organizers said numbered in the hundreds of thousands, culminated in a "Michele Bachmann Tea Party Rally" on the Washington Monument grounds sponsored by the Minnesota Republican's campaign.
Bachmann told a crowd of several thousand supporters that Beck's rally "celebrated what's good about America, what's right about America."
Neither Bachmann nor any other officeholders spoke from the main stage, which organizers sought to cleanse of overtly political messages.
Beck, a popular Fox News and talk radio host, has been sharply criticized in the past for his strident denunciations of President Obama, whom he has called a "racist" with a "deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture."
But Beck showed a softer side in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, saying the nation has too long "wandered in the darkness," and calling for a religious and cultural revival.
"Something that is beyond man is happening," he told the throng, which stretched along the Reflecting Pool from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument. "America today begins to turn back to God."
Amid a parade of inspirational speakers, including Alveda King, a niece of Martin Luther King who has crusaded against abortion, the biggest cheers were for Beck and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who confirmed that she was asked to avoid politics.
But in what was widely taken as a reference to Obama, Palin told the crowd, "We must not fundamentally transform America as some would want. We must restore America and restore her honor."
Civil rights activists, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, who planned to march to the site of a King memorial on the National Mall, largely stayed clear of the Beck rally, other than some college-age demonstrators who carried their anti-Beck signs into the crowd.
At one point, they were met with chants of "USA, USA!" They responded in kind, shouting, "USA! USA!" back.
One of the students, Puerto Rico native David Colon-Cabrera, said he was "insulted" by the connection to the King speech anniversary, which Beck has called a "divine providence" coincidence.
"It sends the wrong message to people of color and to people who fought for civil rights, because this movement is not about civil rights," said Colon-Cabrera, a doctoral student at the University of Maryland.
Beck's allies at the Lincoln Memorial didn't see it that way. "It's all about dreams," said Colin Hanna, president of Let Freedom Ring. "It's about values. It's about American culture."
Hanna said event organizers made no attempt to "compete with Martin Luther King." But, he added, "I think there are common threads that legitimately connect this event to the [King] speech."
To Marlon-David Sias, a Bachmann volunteer from Cambridge, Minn., the "Dream" speech resonates deeply with modern-day social conservatives because of King's appeal to judge people of all races "by the content of their character."
"Restoring honor, to me, means that we need to restore a foundation of character and absolute truth in the country," said Sias. "There is a right and a wrong."
While the main event's organizers portrayed it as a patriotic exercise to restore traditional moral values, Bachmann waded directly into partisan appeals in a speech Friday to the Americans for Prosperity Foundation Summit, which organized shuttle buses to the rally.
Bachmann called for replacing Obama with a "bold, rock-ribbed ... constitutional conservative" in 2012, noting, "It's our country; we own it. It doesn't belong to a cabal of a half-dozen radicals who are determined to reshape this country into an image that none of us would ever begin to recognize."
At Saturday's Tea Party rally, Bachmann recited the names of some 50 members of her new House Tea Party Caucus. She singled out South Carolina Republican Joe Wilson, who famously yelled, "You lie!" at Obama during an address to Congress.
"Two words," Bachmann exulted, as she held up two fingers. "You lie!" the crowd roared back. "Make sure they can hear you in November," Bachmann replied.
'She's my gal'
Bachmann, introduced at her rally as "Barack Obama's worst nightmare," was a familiar name throughout the crowd, even if she didn't appear on stage with Beck.
"She's my gal," said Susan Fisher, a retired 911 operator from Elverson, Pa. "She's standing up."
Some movement leaders, including Bachmann, estimated the Beck rally crowd at a million strong, while others, including Beck, put it at less than that, but still in the hundreds of thousands. Washington authorities do not provide crowd estimates for such gatherings.
Organizers had asked people not to bring signs, but T-shirts and buttons made sympathies clear. Tim Rush, a Lyndon LaRouche organizer from Leesburg, Va., wore a placard depicting Obama with a Hitler-style mustache. "Dump Obama now, Nixon-style, forced resignation," he said.
Dennis Harbert of Massillon, Ohio, dressed as Benjamin Franklin, quipped about King's maxim that people should be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. "I wish we had done that in '08," he said.
Rallygoers were generally friendly and polite, even as they were quick to express their frustrations with rising government spending, the deepening national debt and the faltering economy.
Dan Menzel, an auto mechanic from Monticello, Minn., said he drove to the rally with a friend, even though he's not a Tea Party activist and voted for Bill Clinton and the late Sen. Paul Wellstone.
"I think the country's going in the wrong direction," Menzel said. "And I'd like to be a little part of maybe making it turn back a little."
Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2753