"Calmer than you are, dude" read one sign at the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in Washington, D.C. Saturday afternoon. It summed up the mood of the crowd—cool, comical, not at all worked up by any political message.
CBS News, which hired a helicopter to do an accurate count of the thousands of people who trooped Washington for the low-key affair put together by comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, estimated 210,000 people attended the event in the Washington Mall. (Fox News, naturally, put the numbers at less than one hundred thousand.)
However large the rally was, mainstream TV seemed stymied by the event's purpose. It wasn't really political, it wasn't just a comedy show (although Stewart and Colbert did their arch comedy shtick on a stage under the Capitol building, which was beamed on many Jumbotrons).
It wasn't a rock gig (although everyone from Sheryl Crow to John Legend to Cat Stevens - now Yusuf Islam - performed). NPR even declined to cover it, deciding it wasn't a real political event. Network execs scratched their heads. Everyone wanted to make something out of it that it wasn't.
The "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear" (the Fear part comes from Colbert's hilarious attempts in his pseudo conservative persona to interject fear into the midterm election precess) was nothing more than an event for the people in the political middle.
It was a chance for the actual forgotten center, if you will, to say, "stop the extremism and listen to us for a change." All about the crowd signs and costumes made the statements loud and clear: "Don't Tread on Anybody" (a clear answer to the case of a Rand Paul staffer stepping on small female MoveOn volunteer's head). "Seniors for Sanity" followed by "Slightly Perturbed." "1.No Biting, 2. No Hitting, 3.No Kicking, Kindergarten Rules 101," "I Am Afraid of People Who Carry Signs at Rallies," "War Solved Hitler," "No One is a Communist and a Nazi," "I Spell-check My Political Rants," "I Have No Idea What I Am Doing Here," "Freedom Fries, Never Forget," "I'm Pretty Sure Nazi Germany Didn't Allow Rallies Like This At All (That Should Tell Us Something)," and "Tea Parties are for Little Girls and Mad Hatters." Following that theme were a few people dressed as Mad Hatters with tea bags dangling from their costumes.
Some sidewalk hawkers had a few political wares to sell, the funniest of which was a t-shirt that had a picture of George W. Bush. It read: "I screwed you all. But thanks for blaming the black guy." Sales were brisk. But mostly people just bought shirts with the official Rally logo.
While the crowd was impossible to peg—young fans of the shows, old hippies, curious residents of Virginia and the D.C. area, dedicated "The Daily Show" fans who flew in from California—all were there to enjoy themselves, have a good time and trade quips. No one was there to press a political agenda. Well, there were a few misguided souls who were passing out leaflets for a political cause, but they were few and far between. Mostly, they were ignored.
Stewart and Colbert did a stage show about honor and fear, with Colbert comically trying to inflame Stewart with panic about killer bees, storms, robots and the like. But Stewart kept professing his belief that America was great and could overcome anything. (Sound quality was not great, and many could not hear much the show at all. My own vertical challenge prevented me from seeing even the Jumbotrons.)
The musical acts were loud and proud though, and one could hardly miss the former Cat Stevens, now a Muslim, performing "Peace Train," which Colbert challenged with Ozzy Osbourn's "Crazy Train." Back and forth the comedians went, handing out awards from most sane individuals to the most insane.
One of the insane was Mark Zuckerberg for inventing Facebook, but as Colbert explained, "He's not here because he values his own privacy more than he values yours."
Eventually, they came to an agreement that America was a pretty great place to live, and they sang — Stewart apologized for making people hear his singing voice. And the event ended, after Sheryl Crow and Kid Rock did a high-powered number, with an impassioned speech from Stewart that all Americans can work together instead of engaging in polarizing fighting.
"These are dark times but not the end times," he said. Later he added, "We hear every damned day about how fragile our country is, on the brink of catastrophe, torn by polarizing hate, and how it's a shame that we can't work together to get things done. The truth is, we do! We work together to get things done every damned day! The only place we don't is here (in Washington) or on cable TV!"
It was a sobering speech from a man we think of as a cerebral comedian, but not a pundit. Yet he was making more sense than most talking heads on TV. On "Meet the Press" Sunday morning, every one on the panelists had no idea what to make of the huge crowd that gathered the day before in D.C.—and left the mall almost spotless, by the way. National Public Radio's Nichele Norris complained that the rally crowd could have been canvassing that day, missing the point that the rally participants were unaligned with a party and irritated with the whole process. They were making a statement that the process is broken and no one in Washington, it seems, heard the message at all. Maybe the candidates did. There are a lot of votes out there they could capture, if they learned to how speak nonviolently, rationally, and with moderation.