At the end of the Rally to Restore Sanity on Saturday, Jon Stewart stood alone onstage — the Capitol dome behind him, tens of thousands of sign-toting fans carpeting the National Mall before him — and asked, "What exactly was this?"
It was a good question. Billed as a gathering for folks who feel drowned out by the din of partisan bickering — "people who think shouting is annoying, counterproductive and terrible for the throat" — it was also an awkward straddle: a rally that mocked rallies, a nominally apolitical event held four days before a major election, a variety-show medley on a hallowed stage. "This was not a rally to ridicule people of faith," Stewart said in an earnest and eloquent closing speech. "Or people of activism. Or to 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. They are and we do. But we live now in hard times, not end times. And we can have animus and not be enemies."
Whether it was comedy for the sake of comity, the prospect of a rollicking party on Halloween weekend or a desire to one-up Glenn Beck, fans flocked to Washington from all over the country to see Stewart and his Comedy Central counterpart Stephen Colbert perform their familiar shtick on an outsize stage. Attendees came decked out for the season, sporting zombie face paint, Waldo costumes and Richard Nixon masks; a coven of Christine O'Donnells strolled by as Darth Vader snapped a picture with a conservationist toting a massive replica of an Arctic tern. To catch a glimpse of the proceedings, crowd members staked out space atop Porta-Pottys and climbed trees. Others hoisted Shepard Fairey–style Team Sanity placards and meta-ironic signs advertising their views on abortion, taxes, beards, Lost, Lyndon LaRouche and lunar prisons. "God Hates Rallies," declared one missive. "God Hates Snuggies," went another. Still a third: "I am pretty sure God Hates Us All Equally." There was a yellow Gadsden flag — the ubiquitous Tea Party emblem — but instead of "Don't Tread on Me," it read "OMG, Snakes!"
Amid a hodgepodge of celebrities, the raucous crowd was the star of the show. The three-hour rally, anchored by Stewart and Colbert, was replete with musical performances from the Roots, Ozzy Osbourne, Sheryl Crow and Kid Rock, and Jeff Tweedy and Mavis Staples; a comic benediction from Father Guido Sarducci; crowd dispatches from Daily Show reporters and a poem read by actor Sam Waterston. The co-emcees quickly fell into their trademark roles, with Stewart playing the sane straight man and Colbert his fear-mongering foil. The Daily Show host handed out awards to reasonable citizens, like the Detroit Tigers' Armando Galarraga, who reacted gracefully when he was denied a perfect game by an umpire's blunder. Colbert, who wore a leather bomber jacket and pajamas for much of the party, doled out medals honoring fear. For stretches it was witty; at other times the patter between the pair was flat, and some guests — like the guys from MythBusters — seemed to sap the life from the crowd. The final segment included a long allegory in which Stewart likened overcoming partisan divisions to merging into the Lincoln Tunnel — hardly anyone's favorite enterprise, but perhaps an apt one for the tortured process of compromising on issues of conviction.
So was the rally a "tremendous success" or a "horrendous failure"? According to Stewart, these were the only two ways the media could frame it. And in the run-up to the event, the Washington press corps — which on Saturday served as the comedian's primary piñata — certainly strained to wring meaning from the shindig. "The press is our immune system," Stewart said. "If it over-reacts to everything, we get sicker, and maybe eczema." If you listened to the attendees, however, the point of attending the rally was simple: "to have fun," as one D.C. resident (who didn't want to give her name because she worked for the federal government) put it. Marsha Eck, a 54-year-old teacher from South Bend, Ind., expressed hope that the gathering could provide "a model for a new kind of conversation." A trio of teenagers from Downington, Pa., who came with their high school civics class and wore matching lime-green T-shirts so their teacher could spot them, explained that the rally was important because "everybody is yelling but nobody listens to each other."
Though the crowd's political leaning was obvious, Stewart took care to bifurcate activism and partisanship. When he explained to Colbert how fear is manufactured, the villain was not the Republican Party but a politico-media industry that feeds on conflict. Some members of that group, standing at the fringes of the jumbled mass, questioned whether the attendees' energy and activism could have found better outlets on the eve of Tuesday's midterms. "It's four days before the election," said a Capitol Hill staffer. "Instead of being here, why aren't you knocking on doors in Ohio?" According to a USAction straw poll of attendees, 86% of respondents said they plan to vote for a Democrat, and just 5% said they were unlikely to vote. Thirty-nine percent said they were less enthusiastic about voting than in 2008. But many members of the crowd said the rally was a chance to showcase a different type of citizenship than the overheated rhetoric that dominates political coverage. "I love that there are all ages of people and that we're all really passionate, and I think we needed to come together before the election just to show that we really do care, we really are gonna vote and this is really an important election," said Robin Kahn, a 55-year-old from New York.
For their part, the hosts said their mission was not to extend their brands or impose their views but simply to entertain. "We do television shows for people who like them," Stewart explained at a press conference after the event. For the crowd, he had an equally simple denouement: what mattered was that people showed up. "Your presence was what I wanted," he said. "Sanity will always and has always been in the eye of the beholder. To see you here today has restored mine."