One of the super-early risers was Bert Melli, a 78-year-old retiree from Ridley Township wearing a T-shirt that read "Sure You Can Trust the Government - Ask an Indian." Said Melli: "We have to let people know we are unhappy with the direction of the country. This is a way to get their attention."
That they did - as about 28 of them packed local buses, arranged by the main Philadelphia-area tea-party group, that blended on Saturday morning into a Beck-and-Sarah-Palin-led D.C. throng with estimates of the crowd size ranging from a low of 87,000 from CBS News to several hundred thousand people according to other news organizations, stretching the length of the massive reflecting pool in the shadow of the Lincoln shrine.
But any displeasure over Obama's presidency within the overwhelmingly white and middle-class gathering could be metered at the much-ballyhooed three-hour-plus event - dubbed "Beckapalooza" by some critics - only by that crowd size, and not by the words from the podium. Obama's name was never mentioned during what played more like a tent revival at which God and Jesus Christ were invoked repeatedly after an homage to soldiers and others, including St. Louis Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols, who was handed a "Badge of Honor" for "hope." Beck launched his keynote speech by stating that the rally had "nothing to do with politics, everything to do with God."
In many ways, the political controversy and hype masked what instead was really a cultural moment for America's increasingly visible conservative movement. In the context of the frequent bizarro-world 1960s countercultural analogies about the so-called tea-party movement, the angry anti-Obama rallies of 2009 were their Chicago or Berkeley, but this was indeed their kinder, gentler riff on Woodstock, except with country music in place of Country Joe and the Fish, and with frequent appeals to faith in the Almighty instead of distrusting anyone over the age of 30.
In the end, the most interesting thing that took place on a long and languidly hot day on the National Mall was perhaps an unintended consequence of the event: Its peculiar timing on the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s iconic "I Have a Dream" speech, delivered just a few feet from the spot where Beck and Palin spoke Saturday - and the ensuing debate over who controls King's legacy in 2010.
Throughout the event, Beck - who said that he initially wasn't aware of the timing but called it "divine providence" - worked in flowery tributes to King, including a video that received healthy applause and a speech by Alveda King, a niece of the slain civil-rights leader and an ally of the anti-abortion movement. Said Beck of her uncle: "His dream is the American dream."
But in many concrete ways, the Beck rally was the polar opposite of the King speech and the 1963 march, which focused not just on ending segregation but also on creating jobs for blacks and for the poverty-stricken. In stark contrast, there was virtually no mention of unemployment at Saturday's Mall rally, even as the jobless rate lingers perilously near 10 percent and several attendees voiced their anxiety in interviews.
"Half of my friends don't have jobs - and the ones who do have job worries," said Joanne Gerber, 66, of Havertown, a deli owner who rode one of the buses arranged by the Independence Tea Party. She said that that was why she felt it was important to spend the morning on the Mall, the first big political rally she has ever attended.
Ironically, the issue of job creation was addressed at a smaller counter-rally, a Washington event put together by the Rev. Al Sharpton and other modern-day civil-rights leaders who complained that Beck - still under fire for 2009 remarks, that he's since walked back from, in which he charged that Obama "has a deep-seated hatred of white people" - was seeking to hijack King's legacy with the Aug. 28 date.
In midafternoon, several thousand protesters - mostly black but with a healthy smattering of whites and others - marched past Beck stragglers at the base of the Washington Monument, pounding drums and chanting: "No justice, no peace!"
"We are all Americans - they talk about 'taking back our country,' but this country belongs to all of us," said one of the Sharpton-led marchers, John Bennett, a self-employed laborer from Washington who is black. "It's our country as much as anybody else's."
In a sharp contrast to King's reputation as an anti-poverty fighter, especially in the final years before he was gunned down by an assassin on a Memphis hotel balcony in 1968, Beck told the rally on Saturday: "The poorest among us are still some of the richest in the world. The poorest among us have blessings beyond the wildest imagination of anyone that Mother Theresa visited. And yet we don't recognize it." Yesterday, in a post-rally interview on "Fox News Sunday," Beck acknowledged to interviewer Chris Wallace that King's economic agenda was "a part of it that I don't agree with."
What's more, most of the tea party movement that overlaps with Beck's national audience has enthusiastically endorsed the principles of greater states' rights and so-called "nullification" to block parts of the Obama agenda, like health-care reform and action on climate change. King directly lambasted "nullification" in the 1963 speech.
In fact, the core message that Beck offered his audience was far removed from King's ideals of citizens working together for social change, even if in a more conservative direction. The Fox host urged his partisans to instead look inward for answers. At one point, he told the crowd to "connect with your family, yourself, and to your children," adding later: "If you understand who God is, you will understand that you are one of his children."
Indeed, it was Palin, not Beck, who worked in the only political reference of the day, a thinly veiled snipe at Obama. "I must assume that you, too, knowing that, no, we must not fundamentally transform America as some would want, we must restore America and restore her honor," the former GOP vice-presidential candidate said, clearly a retort to the Democratic president's 2008 rhetoric on the campaign trail.
No political signs could be seen in the audience - Beck and other organizers had told people to leave them at home - and while flag-draped attire was commonplace, anti-Obama messages were nowhere in sight. After the rally, the mood seemed to be less one of worked-up enthusiasm than of softer satisfaction that their movement had put its spiritual foot forward for the nation to see.
June Mathieu, who drove down for the weekend from Rochester, N.Y., said afterward that she liked both the peaceful nature of the rally and the message that "our country has always been built around God as a center of public life." But, ultimately, the message that Beck Nation most wanted to hear on Saturday came not from Beck but from Palin, who told them simply: "You're not alone."