Tens of thousands of people poured onto the National Mall on Saturday
to hear comedian Jon Stewart plead for tolerance and temperance in
politics and the media, and for a greater culture of cooperation in
Along with fellow Comedy Central star Stephen Colbert, Stewart led a lively but restrained rally that was part variety show, part music festival, and, in the spirit of the season, part Halloween parade. There was plenty of liberal irreverence at the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, but pop culture often trumped politics.
When Stewart turned serious near the end of the two-hour event, he called for calm in the public discourse but avoided any talk of the coming election and, to the likely dismay of Democratic operatives, he did not implore the surely left-leaning crowd to vote.
“We live now in hard times, not end times,” Stewart said in his closing speech. “We can have animus and not be enemies.”
“If we amplify everything, we hear nothing,” he said.
The “Daily Show” host added his own twist on the perennial call for bipartisanship in Washington, using the example of a busy highway merging lane to argue that everyday Americans can work together even if politicians and partisan pundits cannot.
“We work together to get things done every damn day,” Stewart said. “The only place we don’t is here” - he continued, pointing to the Capitol behind him - “or on cable TV.”
Before its sincere finale, the rally featured a mix of sharp and silly satire familiar to fans of the “Daily Show” and the “Colbert Report,” spiced up with appearances by rock stars, athletes and a few not-quite-A-list celebrities. There was a musical duel between Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) and Ozzy Osbourne, and a duet with Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow. The Roots, John Legend, NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Sam Waterston of “Law & Order,” and Steven Slater, the infamous former JetBlue flight attendant, also appeared or performed.
Stewart preached religious tolerance, especially for Muslims, and the duo took several biting shots at the media.
Colbert provided many of the rally’s zanier moments, including an entrance playing off the rescue of the Chilean miners, while Stewart served as the straight man and master of ceremonies.
If the comedians steered clear of overt politics, the crowd did not. Many rally-goers said they were Obama voters who planned to support Democrats on Tuesday, while some brought signs making fun of the Tea Party. “Tea parties are for little girls and madhatters,” one sign read, while another said “Anti-Tea: I like coffee.” Among other signs: “I disagree with you, but I’m pretty sure you’re not Hitler,” “I won’t stomp on your head if you disagree with me,” and, simply, “I like taxes.”
Several attendees said they relished the idea of a rally for moderation, or “sanity.”
“It’s almost like the biggest practical joke that’s been played in America in a long time, and I wanted in on it,” said Lea Tapp, 34, who drove 13 hours from her home in western Kentucky. “I like the idea of taking it down a notch,” she said of the cable TV shoutfests that Stewart decries.
Mark Spina, 42, a public school teacher from Pennsylvania, said he and his wife came to the rally to send the message that “there is moderation in American politics and there is moderation in American culture.”
Others said they saw the event in the way Stewart envisioned it: as a counter to the “Restore Honor” rally hosted by Glenn Beck that drew hundreds of thousands of conservatives to the Mall in late August. “I wanted to be a part of something that shows numbers,” a small-business owner from New Jersey, Linda Sullivan, 61, said. “I believe in Obama and all he’s doing.”
Several people said they didn’t know what to expect heading into
the rally. Would it be strictly comedy? Would it resemble a political
rally for Democrats three days before a national election?
Stewart acknowledged the ambivalence at the outset of his concluding speech.
“I’m really happy you guys are here, even if none of us are quite sure why,” he quipped.
"So, um, what exactly was this?” he asked at another point. “I can’t control what people think this was, I can only tell you my intentions. This is 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, or that we have nothing to fear. They are, and we do.”
Earlier in the program, in one of their many shots at the media, Stewart and Colbert mocked the traditional coverage of large rallies, saying that they were inevitably deemed either “a tremendous success, or a horrendous failure.”
Stewart joked that 10 million people were on the Mall, and in a riff on notoriously unreliable crowd estimates, the comedians launched a mock “count off” of the crowd. Organizers had prepared for 150,000 people, and in an indication of an overflow, chants of “louder, louder” periodically erupted from sections of the throng who stood beyond the reach of the speakers and jumbo-sized television screens. After the event, organizers said more than 200,000 were in attendance -- a number that could not be confirmed.
The Democratic National Committee tried to take advantage of the influx of liberals, organizing phone banks at nearby locations after the rally.