WASHINGTON – A high-spirited crowd numbering in the tens of thousands swamped the National Mall on Saturday, overwhelming the city’s public transportation system as people flocked to what organizers billed as a “comedic call for calm.”
Much of the “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear,” put on by “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart and his Comedy Central colleague Stephen Colbert, resembled a large-scale variety show, with humorous sketches and surprise musical guests such as Kid Rock, Tony Bennett and Yusuf Islam, the former Cat Stevens.
But the three-hour event ended on a serious note when Stewart, in a break from his usual satiric stance, made an impassioned defense of American unity and denounced cable news depictions of a country riven with animosity.
“The image of Americans that is reflected back to us by our political and media process is false,” he said.
“We hear every damn day about how fragile our country is, on the brink of catastrophe, torn by polarizing hate, and how it’s a shame that we can’t work together to get things done. The truth is, we do. We work together to get things done every damn day. The only place we don’t is here or on cable TV.”
As organizers had promised, the rally sought to avoid any partisan message – none of the speakers even urged people to vote in Tuesday’s midterm elections. The most overt political statement was made by Velma Hart, who famously told President Barack Obama at a town hall meeting in September she was “exhausted” from defending him.
Hart, who received one of the day’s four “medals of reasonableness,” drew cheers when she said of Obama: “I appreciated his answer and I appreciate the answer that he’s given us every day since. So I’m very excited.”
Some in attendance viewed the event as a much-needed political revival for the left, waving signs calling for gay rights and the legalization of marijuana and jabbing at Republicans and the tea party movement. “I’m from Kentucky. Sorry about Rand Paul,” read one. “Put Your Tea On Ice,” declared another.
“Jon Stewart might not have wanted a political rally; this is a political rally,” said Vince Beltrami, 48, president of the Alaska AFL-CIO, who flew with his wife from Anchorage to attend. “This is reasonable people’s opportunity to stand up against the crazy.”
His sign read: “Did I have to fly 3776 miles to refudiate Sarah Palin? You betcha!”
Still, the majority seemed motivated less by partisanship than a desire to speak out against the rancorous political discourse that has dominated the 2010 elections.
“We feel that a very radical minority has controlled the dialogue of our politics and it’s about time the more rational population start getting involved,” said Brian Sibson, 51, of Jacksonville, Fla.
Fans organized at least 20 satellite rallies in Spokane, Seattle, Boise, Austin, Texas; Los Angeles, Chicago and other cities.