WASHINGTON - It was a vast, polite celebration of keeping it civil, keeping it sane.
In their much-touted Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear on Saturday, Comedy Central twin threats Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert treated thousands packed in the National Mall to jokes, music, repetitions of the Wave, and a profound message: No matter what happens in this election, lots of people want to be reasonable.
That was the message left with thousands who jammed streets, cabs, and Metro stations after the show: The American way of politics has gotten to be too much.
Stewart and Colbert, stars of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, respectively, touting sanity and making fun of fearmongering (also respectively). But the crowd played its own sprawling role. Turnout was huge. There are no official crowd estimates at the mall anymore, but guesses lurched from 60,000 to 200,000, not counting Colbert's "early estimate" via Twitter of "six billion." Saturday's gathering seemed to be diverse and largely between 25 and 40, although all age groups were there in force.
Local attendees report civility broke out on all sides.
Barbara Blonsky of Mount Laurel said, "I've never been in a crowd so big - and yet so intent on listening." Susan Van Rossum of Cape May Court House said, "Everyone was polite," and Gloria Anderson of Voorhees said: "It was a very peaceful gathering, even though packed in, and at the end, people picked up after themselves. It was a bunch of moderates on the Mall." Alan Lundy, a research consultant from Wyncote, said: "Everybody seemed very much in the spirit. I hardly heard a negative word. Almost all the signs were about this theme of moderation."
The rally was a monumental showcase of clever, satirical, silly placards. Appropriate, but it also was a running commentary - hundreds and hundreds of commentaries - on the frustration and weariness of a long, shrill election campaign. Lundy said, "There seemed to be thousands of signs, and their creativity was amazing."
Signs ranged from WHAT DO WE WANT? MODERATION! WHEN DO WE WANT IT? WITHIN A REASONABLE TIME FRAME, to LES RÉASONABLES or I'M WITH SANE. The signs both celebrated the day and took a poke at the angry demonstrations and town-hall meetings of the last two summers.
There were signs about signs, such as BIG SIGN, or WITTY SIGN, and yet another informing the world that I HAVE A SIGN. THIS SIGN IS SPELLED CORRECTLY hinted that the other side needed work on its spelling. I CAN SEE SANITY FROM MY HOUSE perhaps needed no explanation. Another theme was the Hitler reference, the rhetorical atom bomb lobbed at everyone from George Bush to Barack Obama. Uncle Sam pointed at the reader: I WANT YOU TO STOP DRAWING HITLER MUSTACHES ON EVERYONE. Another sign, carried by a man dressed like the Führer, read: NO, I'M HITLER.
An astonishing number of people came in costume. Several small groups dressed as the Mad Hatter, Alice, March Hare, and company from the tea party in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Others were dressed as minutemen, Founding Fathers, Sanity Elves (a lot of variations on that one), bears, nuns, spacemen, Mexican immigrants, and Uncle Sam.
Colbert and Stewart offered a musical lineup including Philly hip-hop ensemble the Roots; Sheryl Crow; John Legend; Ozzy Osbourne; Mavis Staples; Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens (establishing a theme of religious tolerance); and a lot of funny stuff.
Colbert, who was on the "Fear" side of the equation, started the show in "a bunker 2,000 feet beneath the stage." When "Sanity" fan Stewart said there was nothing for the crowd to fear, Colbert said: "Soon they'll be a mindless, panicked mob once I release the bees." True to the event, it never happened.
Michael Rodriguez, a Germantown Friends grad who works at Penn, texted that "I certainly enjoyed it, though I wonder if the message was a little bit lost in the show. Overall, I would say that it was a success."
The rally, finally, struck many attendees as a comment on both the anger and spite of this election year and the excesses of today's media. Anderson, waiting in a long line at the Washington restaurant Thai Chili after the show, said, "The whole idea was to have rational conversations, without demonizing each other."
Volunteering to clean up the site afterward, Van Rossum said, "Jon Stewart did a wonderful job at the end," when he made an earnest plea for the country to relearn civility. "It was very moving how he used the traffic jam as a metaphor," Van Rossum said. "We're all in our own little worlds, but we give in to each other a little bit so we can all get ahead."
Stewart and Colbert also challenged the crowd to be critical of 24/7 media - including their own medium of cable TV. Carol Rapier of Phoenixville, captain of DC Rally Bus No. 1 out of King of Prussia, said: "We have to find the real information for ourselves, and not just consume what's thrown at you. It's the person's choice; you have the power of the remote."
In the end, Rapier said, the main theme was tolerance: "We're all kinds of people, color, race, sexuality, whatever, and we make it work. Civility is the next area of challenge - and we can make that work, too."