WASHINGTON, D.C. — Back “in the day,” an anti-establishment radical would look around at a crowd of 180,000 to 215,000, many dressed in silly costumes and carrying even sillier, highly ironic signs, and say, “Dude, it’s a happening!” — one of those events that bloomed suddenly and usually faded almost as fast, but you knew you wanted to be a part of to put your stamp on it and forever claim you were there.
Saturday’s Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear (aka “that Jon Stewart thing”) on the National Mall here most likely won’t be blessed with “happening” status by, say, the likes of Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh. But judging by the pervasive laughter, bonhomie and satiric-minded silliness that the huge crowd itself brought to the event, Saturday achieved instant iconic status as a kind of retaliatory, mini-Woodstock of the proudly literate, without the bad acid, rainstorms and skinny-dipping (at least as far as I saw, anyway).
That’s without even considering whatever Stewart, Stephen Colbert, the Roots, Ozzie Ozbourne and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were doing way off on the stage most couldn’t see (not even on Jumbotrons obviously deployed in expectation of a much smaller crowd).
Evidence of the eastward-bound pilgrimage toward the event began appearing for me and a couple of buddies Friday:
—A mom, dad, son and daughter in a Toyota Tundra pickup, pulling a large silver trailer bearing Stewart’s image as a knock-off of Shepard Fairey’s classic Obama “Change” logo. (Lots of waving, horn-honking and “Right on!” fist-pumping.)
—Then a single woman in a SmartCar with Texas plates, Rally and Obama stickers. (There was no fist-pumping for her. She was deep in a cell phone conversation. So just a fraternal wave.)
A hotel in exurban Gaithersburg, 20 miles from the Mall, was populated almost entirely by Rally-goers, families again, including two women herding the inevitable hard-texting teenager and what looked like her two younger brothers. Although none wore clearly identifying pins, everyone responded immediately and positively to my unprompted cry to “Keep Fear Alive!” from the lobby’s coffee kiosk.
“I do everything I can every day,” laughed one of the women. She told me they were from “outside Harrisburg” and brought the kids, “because we want them to remember they were a part of something like this.” Right. But just to be there? That’s the primary motivation?
“Well,” she said, “it’s a protest against all the crazies, the Tea Party crowd and all that, without being crazy ourselves. If you watch the news, you’d think they were the only people with anything to say, and they can’t even spell!”
Tea Party one target
To be sure, the Tea Party was a primary target of Rally satire. With its adherents’ affinity for inchoate rage, indiscriminate grasp of history, mangled grasp of the Constitution and comically misspelled protest signs, Tea Party bashing was like a beach ball on a tee begging to be whacked.
Three women threaded through the standing-room-only crowd past 10th Street, six long blocks from the stage, wearing, a la Lady Gaga, satchel-sized tea bags for hats. A couple, their picnic blanket long-since surrounded by the mob, remained seated in Alice in Wonderland and Mad Hatter attire serving hot chai and biscuits — from a silver service, no less — until all their supplies were depleted.
If there was a surprise, besides the size of the crowd, which no doubt swelled because of the pleasant Halloween weather, it was the range of ages.
Everyone expected the usual 21st-century liberal rainbow aggregation of blacks, Hispanics, gays and Asians, but the number of middle-aged to elderly rally-goers (some very elderly and in wheelchairs) was striking.
I asked a man named Lyle, from Springfield, Mass. standing with his wife, Carla — he, holding a “Team Sanity” souvenir fan; she, a “Team Fear” version — why they were here standing in the sun on a nice Saturday, three blocks from an overflowing Porta Potty?
They are both 74, Lyle told me. “We were here marching against the [Vietnam] war way back when. This is a lot more relaxed and good-humored. But it’s really the same issue as far as we’re concerned.” And that is? “Fear and craziness. Back then, we were told we had to kill off the North Vietnamese or somehow the Communists would come here and kill us. Now they’re screaming about terrorists and socialists. It’s the same craziness.”
He pointed and laughed at a kid holding a sign reading, “Oh no! I’m surrounded by descendants of immigrants!”
“Jon Stewart,” said Lyle, “is about the only place you can turn for someone who sees how nutty all this is. And that’s a sad commentary, isn’t it?” (Uhhh, hard to disagree, Lyle.)
Media targeted, too
America’s conflict-crazed media, the second-biggest target of the day, took no end of gleeful hits from the crowd. Signs skewering Glenn Beck and the usual FoxNews suspects outnumbered those zinging the hopelessly literal-minded “mainstream” performers, the big-name newsmen and women who still don’t seem to understand what exactly it is Colbert is doing. But they too took hits for being major players in “keeping fear alive.”
The act of being present, of standing (literally, for three hours) and being counted — for broad-minded sanity and against the din of hysterical know-nothingism — seemed to be the prevailing point of attendance. No one seemed to have any great interest in Sheryl Crow and Kid Rock or any of the other performers.
The crowd did fall quiet as it became clear that Stewart was straining in his closing to summarize, seriously, his rationale for the rally. His determination to celebrate reasonableness and avoid his trademark withering takedowns of partisan political hackery, lent a slightly discordant tone to the finale. If he had bitten the head off a Bill O’Reilly doll, most of the crowd would have roared its approval. But, as impresario, he seemed to feel obligated to apply a toner coat of sobriety to the afternoon’s sublime silliness.
So when he reminded everyone, “We are living in hard times, not end times,” that felt like summation enough for an inherently skeptical throng with (a guess here) so little affinity for lazy-minded platitudes and cheap slogans … other than those they slapped on thousands of homemade signs.
Brian Lambert, who blogs at TheSameRowdyCrowd, is co-writer of The Daily Glean.