The Crowd’s Eye View of the ‘Rally to Restore Sanity’

Crowd estimates at 250,000 people, and 4 million live streams online, and as yet, no reports of any sort of trouble or disturbance at all. That’s what we heard in the press room with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert after the Rally to Restore Sanity on 10/30/10 on the National Mall in Washington D.C., and being amongst the crowd, I had no reason to doubt that.

Last night, I chatted up some people who had come out to take a look at the stage, asking them why they were coming out to the event, and I got a goodly number of rational, coherent responses about the state of the national discourse. When I arrived on site this morning at around 9:30am, I saw that same attitude reflected in the amusingly intelligent, nerdy and ironic signage people brought. Some were partisan but thoughtfully so, some were naughty, some were elaborate, some were earnest and some were just random off-topic jokes, but most were firmly in the vein of the first sign Stewart unveiled on ‘The Daily Show’ – “Take It Down A Notch For America.”

Some examples of interesting signs:

* Don’t Believe Everything You Think
* It’s A Sad Day When Our Politicians Are Comical and I Have To Take Our Comedians Seriously
* Tea Parties Are For Mad Hatters
* Many Rational Voices Will Drown The Noise Of A Few Loud Lunatics
* [Citation Needed]
* I Understand The Difference Between Communism, Fascism & Socialism And I Don’t Use Them Interchangeably
* Rednecks For Obama
* Moderates Like It Both Ways
* Bring ‘Arrested Development’ Back Obama
* Paul Revere Was An Anchor Baby
* Freedom Fries! Never Forget
* Real Patriots Do It With Factual Support

Check out the Top 100 Signs at the Rally right here. There was also one that read “Glenn Beck Took Our Beach Ball,” but that problem was remedied by a pink balloon being bandied about with Karl Rove’s face drawn on it. There’s no mistaking that this was a left-leaning crowd, but it certainly wasn’t exclusively so. But in a depressing example of just not getting it, as soon as the rally ended, there was a man wandering around with a sign saying “Restore Sanity: Vote Out Liberals.” So it remains to be seen what kind of efficacy this event will have going forward, since Stewart and Colbert themselves aren’t speculating.

Incidentally, I spoke with a reporter who covered the Beck rally here, and she said today’s event pretty much dwarfed Beck’s, so take whatever he says on his show with a grain of salt – which you should probably do anyway. Even Bill O’Reilly thinks Beck is nuts.

I also spoke briefly with Arianna Huffington, who told me that she made good on her promise to bus people to the rally from New York, providing 200 buses for 10,000 people.

Throughout most of the lead-up to this rally, I had concerns about how Colbert’s ironic fearmongering character might wind up undercutting Stewart’s earnest message about dialing down the diatribes. ‘The Colbert Report’ is all about satirizing exactly what Stewart’s rally was directed against, so putting ‘Fear’ on the same bill as ‘Sanity’ seemed disconcerting, especially when the matter of attendance was still in question. I needn’t have worried. The throngs were legion, the message was received and supported fervently, and Colbert played his part well, knowing he was second banana and allowing himself to be vanquished.

An idle thought that will probably amount to nothing, though – will Colbert carry the continuity of the rally onto his show? Will reason triumphing over fear mellow out the Stephen Colbert character at all? After all, that character started out as an exaggerated parody of political pundits, and those pundits have now gotten even more ludicrous in reality than he is in comedy. Chances are, it’ll be back to business as usual, but it could be interesting for him to play with some kind of reformation for a while.

Despite all the excitement, the landmark gathering, the national attention and the massive support for the principles of moderation and reasoned discussion, the actual show itself left a bit to be desired. The Roots opened up the show and made me realize acutely why everyone loves them so much, and in honor of their status as the house band for ‘Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,’ we’ll do a rundown of the show in a segment Fallon likes to call “Pros & Cons.”

PRO: The Roots and John Legend really kicked things off well.
CON: A mix-up early on forced Stewart to awkwardly introduce 4Troops and have them run out on stage to do the national anthem a little hurriedly. Or so it seemed.

PRO: The Mythbusters performing experiments on the hundreds of thousands of people present.
CON: The fact that several times, chants of “Louder! Louder!” emanated from the sides indicated that there were some sound issues.

PRO: Having Yusuf’s “Peace Train” and Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” playing off each other only to compromise with the O’Jays’ “Love Train” was a stroke of genius.
CON: No matter how good the idea was, the execution was a bit sloppy and didn’t quite come off as well as it should have.

PRO: Kid Rock debuts a surprisingly good song presumably called “The Least That I Can Do Is Care.”
CON: The build-up to his introduction had most people thinking it was going to be Stewart’s New Jersey cohort Bruce Springsteen. No matter how good Kid Rock did, he wasn’t going to be The Boss.

PRO: The ‘reconsidering meltdowns’ clips from Jet Blue flight attendant Steven Slater and Teresa Giudice from ‘The Real Housewives of New Jersey,’ illustrating that being reasonable doesn’t mean you don’t have moments of insanity here and there.
CON: Both Stewart and Colbert completely blanking on the order of events right before Tim Meadows’ ‘P.K. Winsome’ piece blunted its effect a bit.

The ‘Reasonableness Awards’ and the Medal of Fear winners were great bits, and Colbert’s giant puppet of doom towards the end was impressive, if awkward. The Stewart/Colbert duet on the ‘Biggest Strongest Country In The World’ song was also a bit awkward – half-intentionally, thanks to Stewart not being anywhere near a good singer, and half-unintentionally, due to glitches with microphones when they tried to do the audience participation bits. Also, the Jason Jones vs. Wyatt Cenac bit illustrating how the news networks will cover the event was inspired satire, too.

In the end, though, it didn’t matter much what hit and what missed. It didn’t matter that my uncle thought it looked like a well-meaning high school assembly, or my friend who watched it on TV disdainfully asked me if it was funnier in person. What mattered was that everybody turned out to try and bring moderation back into political discourse, to prove that the attention-getters aren’t the majority, and to have some nerdy fun.

All that mattered was that Jon Stewart finally came out from behind the desk and from behind his comedic, sarcastic defense shields to give us a speech. A sincere speech. Much like the leader he has no desire to ever become, and the leader we may or may not wish he could be. Illustrating the problem he’s trying to tackle not only with this rally but with his program in general and showing why it needs to be fixed. All of this done in his typically affable, self-deprecating manner that brings so many people to his little basic cable show to get their news from him, and brought 250,000 people to Washington D.C. to support him.

That’s all they needed to go home happy. Very reasonably happy.

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The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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