Conservative commentator Glenn Beck received a ceremonial, plaque-mounted key to the city from the mayor of his hometown, as well as a minute-long standing ovation as hundreds of protesters gathered outside.
The Fox News personality's visit Saturday to Mount Vernon, an agricultural city of 31,000 people 60 miles (100 kilometers) north of Seattle, had sparked weeks of protests and petitions calling for the cancellation of the visit.
But Beck was received warmly inside the sold-out event at the city's McIntyre Hall. Mount Vernon Mayor Bud Norris, who weeks earlier proclaimed Saturday "Glenn Beck Day" as a way to mark the commentator's success as a nationally known broadcaster, introduced Beck and handed over the key.
Beck spoke for about an hour, remembering his childhood in Mount Vernon, which he described as well-connected to the traditional values of small-town America. He cried as he reminisced about going to the local theater with his mother.
"Now, I would give my right arm to live in a town like Mount Vernon. And I discovered today that there are a ton of people ready to cut it off," he said Saturday, jokingly referring to protesters gathered nearby. "It doesn't bother me, because I have the key to their house now."
Hundreds of demonstrators
Demonstrators outside numbered close to 800 — the largest protest anybody could remember in Mt. Vernon's history, Fire Department spokeswoman Erica Work said. The demonstrators appeared evenly split between those who supported Beck and those who opposed his visit.
Police arrested one man who they said ignored repeated warnings to get off the street. The man was arrested on suspicion of disorderly conduct and booked into the Skagit County Jail, authorities said.
Beck, a vocal critic of President Barack Obama, has garnered a strong national following, taking aim at such standard conservative targets as illegal immigration and big government spending.
The event had been criticized by some who claim Beck is too polarizing a figure. In July, for example, he said Obama was a racist who has a "deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture."
The City Council passed a resolution saying "Mount Vernon City Council is in no way sponsoring the mayor's event on Sept. 26, 2009, and is not connected to the Glenn Beck event in any manner."
Norris, a Republican, introduced Beck and emphasized that the honor was for his professional accomplishments, not his political views. He thanked police for providing the extra security.
"It's a pity we had to spend the kind of money we had to," he said. "But it's the price we pay for free speech."
Stays away from politics
Beck, 45, mostly stayed away from discussing politics. But he said he didn't remember politics being so divisive when he was growing up. The country could count on a bright future if people would stop tearing each other apart, he said.
Beck's roots in Washington state are deep. His father ran a bakery in downtown Mount Vernon, and his mother drowned while boating in the Puget Sound when he was a teenager.
In high school, he moved to nearby Bellingham and attended Sehome High School. Throughout his days here, he seemed keen on making a living on radio and television, landing radio and television gigs early on and a disc jockey job out of high school.
Beck's fame has soared exponentially in recent years. He got a television show on CNN three years ago and later moved to Fox News, and his syndicated radio program now appears on more than 350 radio stations.
Beck warmed up for his return to Mount Vernon with an afternoon appearance at Seattle's Safeco Field, where he also drew crowds of loyal fans, as well as a few dozen protesters.
Beck received cheers for declaring that winning the war on terror was more important than health care reform. Then boos erupted as photos of Obama and Democratic Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire appeared on a large screen.