Scenes from the Mall

A writer meets up with Sacramentans at Comedy Central’s big Sanity rally

Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert fans rally near the National Gallery. Many Northern Californians made the pilgrimage to Washington, D.C.

Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert fans rally near the National Gallery. Many Northern Californians made the pilgrimage to Washington, D.C.

Photo By sylvia Fox

Michael Fitzgerald is a professor of journalism at Sacramento State.

Most of the press reports about the Jon Stewart-Stephen Colbert Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., this past Saturday were partly correct—but just as often wrong.

Many newspapers and TV pundits, who ascribed political motivations on the part of Stewart (host of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart) and Colbert (host of The Colbert Report), missed the mark wildly.

Was there political humor? Yes. And it was funny.

Was it real politics? Well, what’s real at a rally sponsored by a comedy channel and hosted by two comedians who routinely (and effectively) skewer politicians of every political stripe?

Somewhere between 200,000 and 250,000 people showed up for the noon to 3 p.m. rally, stretching from the Comedy Central stage on Third Avenue to areas approaching the Washington Monument. Most of the crowd listened to the stage events on loudspeakers and craned to see a half-dozen Jumbotron video displays. The comedy channel offered a live broadcast, as well as a live video stream.

Rally attendees came from all over the United States, varying from the very young to senior citizens, with a solid representation from Northern California.

If there was a single overarching description for most of the people at the rally, it might be that they were not really rally people. Or even political. Conversations all over the mall (and before and after the rally) frequently started with, “I never go to these kind of things,” and, “I’m not really political at all.”

Michael Maloney, a bartender from Homewood Mountain Resort in Lake Tahoe, said going to the rally was the “antithesis” of his normal, non-event-going lifestyle.

“But it just seemed important to show up for this,” he said. Maloney and his girlfriend Danielle had just returned from a Hawaii vacation. “But she had some frequent-flier points and said, ‘Let’s go.’”

Dan Anderson, a retired UC Davis ecotoxicology professor, didn’t hesitate when he first heard about the rally, either. “We wanted to contribute. We came to show our support.”

Anderson’s wife, Irene, was more pointed. “This is my birthday present, to go to the rally,” she said. “And [to send] a message to the tea party: Don’t tread on me.”

For most attendees, the idea of showing up to support a more reasonable dialogue proved irresistible.

Fox News’ Glenn Beck proved popular sign fodder.

Photo By sylvia Fox

“It was total gut,” explained retired Sacramento State English professor Stephanie Tucker, who, along with about 25 Sacramento—and other local area residents—all piled onto the same United Airlines early-morning nonstop flight last Friday to Washington, the day before the rally.

“My 12-year-old granddaughter thought it was kick that I was going,” Tucker said. “And she wants shirt from the rally, too.”

The overall message of the Rally to Restore Sanity was apolitical—despite repeated drum-beating before and after the event by conservative talk-show hosts and Fox News. They contended that the rally was a liberal ploy to help Democratic candidates do better in the midterm elections held Tuesday.

But by using clever skits and music, the event stressed what Stewart had been preaching on his program in the weeks leading up to October 30: Political rhetoric, from the left and right, has grown so shrill and relentless, it’s blocking reasonable political dialogue.

“If we amplify everything, we hear nothing,” he said.

In the entire program, neither Stewart nor Colbert—or the guests or comedians—urged rally attendees to go to the polls or passed along any overt political messages. But there was plenty of sharply barbed satire that skewered politicians and the media from all political perspectives.

In the crowd, the standing jokes and comments all seemed to revolve around the word “reasonable.”

When people pushed toward the front to see or hear better, it was gentle, largely apologetic, and about as aggressive as fans at a production of Cats.

And there seemed no evidence of the crowd drinking alcohol or smoking any marijuana, despite a number of signs supporting California’s Proposition 19, or some that simply said, “Legalize Marijuana.”

The official rally began at noon, with the streets and avenues leading to the National Mall clogged by a steady stream of people walking in all morning. Washington public-transportation systems were overwhelmed, and freeways into the city were jammed.

Busloads of rallygoers from the New York area arrived an hour before the rally on 190 buses rented by Arianna Huffington, adding as many as 10,000 people to the crowd.

And there were plenty of clever signs—the vast majority reflecting the sentiment that the nation needs to “take it down a notch.” A few were more political. Glenn Beck—whose Restoring Honor rally in August was likely part of the reason for the Comedy Central event—was a favorite sign target. So was Sarah Palin.

From noon to 1 p.m., the band the Roots kept the crowd amused—and even dancing at times.

“I am not a [sexy] witch”: Attendees strike back at the tea party with their own handmade signs.

Photo By sylvia Fox

But when Stewart stepped on stage at 1 o’clock, a roar shook the crowd. Signs were lowered as people strained to hear and catch a glimpse of the big screens.

If there was one common complaint, it was that the sound system wasn’t up to the task of reaching out far enough to people who had to sit four or five blocks away.

“But it was still something just to be there, with all those people,” said Caron Rubin of Ithaca, N.Y. “Everyone seemed, well, so reasonable.”

Unlike most political rallies, where the speakers feed applause lines to the crowd and thrive on the roar, the rally seemed to have infected nearly all of the attendees with a mellow mood.

Even the Washington, D.C., police kept a very low profile, occasionally, suggesting that people get down from trees or their high perches on top of Porta-Pottys where they had climbed for a better view.

David Schwartz, also of Ithaca, said it was the most placid rally he had ever attended in his life, with no pushing or shoving, even as people left at 3 p.m.

“This is the most hopeful I’ve been since Woodstock,” he said.

While the music and skits entertained the crowd for most of the three hours, the final 15 minutes was the most moving, when Jon Stewart swapped his dark T-shirt and sports coat for a serious-looking coat and tie to deliver a serious message.

“This was not a rally to ridicule people of faith, or people of activism, or look down our noses at the heartland, or passionate argument, or to suggest that times are not difficult and that we have nothing to fear,” Stewart said. “They are, and we do.

“We live now in hard times, not end times. We can have animus and not be enemies.”

He reserved his harshest words not for many of the political targets The Daily Show routinely lampoons, but for the media itself.

“The country’s 24-hour, political-pundit, perpetual-panic conflictinator did not cause our problems,” Stewart said. “But its existence makes solving them that much harder.”

While Stewart’s words resonated with the crowd, within hours, the news “conflictinators” were already hard at work tearing into the rally, minimizing the size of the audience, parsing Stewart’s comments, and describing the crowd as mostly white, mostly young and just there for entertainment.

The top Fox News headline?

“Stewart’s Rally for ’Sanity’ Draws Insane Crowd.”