It was all about encouraging sanity. Or was it stoking fear?
Either way, the National Mall was packed on Saturday with, according to CBS News, an estimated 215,000 devotees of faux news anchor Jon Stewart and faux commentator Stephen Colbert for their “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.”
“If you look at the size of the crowd, you can see the inspiration there,” said C. Dixon Osburn, a gay D.C.-based activist who attended the rally. “The throngs of us have been longing for some clarity and sanity in moving forward.”
The Comedy Central pair approached the joint rally with different agendas. Stewart called for greater sanity in political discourse to transcend the sound bite journalism found on cable news networks.
“I think you know that the success or failure of a rally is only judged by two criteria: the intellectual coherence of the content and its correllation to the engagement of — I’m just kidding — it’s color and size,” Stewart said. “We all know it’s color and size.”
Colbert, however, sold the rally as a promotion of the kind of fear-mongering dialogue from political commentators that he spoofs on his show.
In the song with the refrain “There is no one more American than we,” Stewart and Colbert sang the line “from gay men who like football to straight men who like ‘Glee.’”
Many rally participants carried messages that lampooned previous rallies in D.C. with a more definite political agenda, such as Fox News commentator Glenn Beck’s Tea Party rally or the progressive One Nation Rally.
One held a sign reading “I want my country (ham) back” and another waived a sign stating “This sign contains correct grammar and spelling.” Yet another attendee raised a sheet with the message, “I have a sign.”
Still, others attempted to deliver decidedly liberal messages. Some carried signs that read, “Thank You Obama” and listed the accomplishments of his first two years in office, such as passage of health care reform legislation.
Osburn, director of law and security for Human Rights Watch, participated in the rally with others from his organization by distributing stickers reading “Fight Fear” while wearing chicken beaks.
“It’s part of the Colbert tongue-and-cheek satire of ‘Keep Fear Alive,’ which means being chicken,” Osburn said. “The reality is you’re supposed to fight fear, so we were there armed with facts rather than fear on issues like terrorism and torture and national security issues.”
Media Matters, a progressive media watchdog group, distributed signs reading “Restore Sanity: Fight Fox,” a dig at the news network known for its conservative bent.
A sizeable libertarian presence could be seen at the rally. A few had “Don’t Tread on Me” flags draped on their backs as they watched Stewart and Colbert’s performance.
LGBT people also made up a significant part of the estimated 215,000 in attendance. Osburn said there are “two realities” in the LGBT community: more people are coming out and coming out at an earlier age as a lack of federal protections for LGBT people persists.
“We are finding acceptance in our families and the companies where we work,” he said. “But there’s this disconnect, and that disconnect is in part because of political leadership that continues to try to divide us — rather than unite us — as a country.”
Zack Ford, a gay blogger from Harrisburg, Pa., held a sign saying “Free Hugs from a Military Atheist with a Gay Agenda” and embracing those who approached him.
“People are still scared of homosexuality in the same way they were 40, 50 years ago,” Ford said. “The same myths persist. That’s why I’m out here identifying myself as gay openly and hugging people because I want to help dispel the myth for some people.”
At one point during the rally, Stewart announced awards for those exhibiting a propensity for sanity in moments when the public was paying attention. Stewart also commended others for taking responsibility after acting in less than rationale ways in the past.
Among those he noted was Steven Slater, a gay former flight attendant with JetBlue. In August, he notoriously cursed out a passenger on a plane arriving at John F. Kennedy International Airport, grabbed a beer from the galley and deployed an emergency exit slide and fled the plane.
In a video played at the rally, Slater apologized for his actions and admitted he acted in a less than sane manner.
“I could have found a more productive way of expressing my frustration instead of freaking out and cursing out a plane of passengers just trying to get to Pittsburgh,” he said. “Maybe a hug would have solved the whole thing.”
Meanwhile, Colbert offered awards for those who induced fear among others. Among the recipients was the black T-shirt donned by CNN news anchor Anderson Cooper during his coverage of disasters striking various areas throughout the country.
Observing that when Cooper shows up in a neighborhood, it means bad news for the area, Colbert brought one of the anchor’s T-shirt on stage and gave it an award for spreading fear.
“Say ‘hi’ to Anderson’s rock-hard torso for us,” Colbert added.
Some political pundits had speculated that the rally could be an “October surprise” that could motivate people to vote Democratic and mitigate what’s expected to be profound losses for the party on Election Day.
Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), a gay lawmaker, hosted a satellite gathering for the rally on Friday in Boulder, Colo., presumably in an attempt to motivate the Democratic base there.
Sean Theriault, a gay government professor at the University of Texas, Austin, said the rally could have some impact on voters, but added that those who think it’ll prevent a Democratic wipeout are “mistaken.”
“It could help turnout a little bit, it could get the base a little bit energized and it could have a huge impact on a couple of races that are pretty close, but I don’t think it’s going to save the Democrats from the impending disaster,” Theriault said.
Similarly, Ford said he thinks the rally is an opportunity to energize those who may not otherwise be engaged in the political process.
“It’s not necessarily just all left, but it’s people from all walks of life, from all states and countries that are interested in American equality and progress,” Ford said. “They’re coming out here just to get energized and to show what’s important to them.”
Closing the rally with a keynote address, Stewart said he wanted to clarify the purpose of the rally, emphasizing it wasn’t intended to suggest times aren’t difficult and Americans have nothing to fear.
“They are and we do,” he said. “But we live now in hard times, not end times, and unfortunately one of our main tools in delineating the two broke.”
Stewart argued that what he called the “country’s 24-hour political pundit perpetual panic inflictinator” isn’t responsible for America’s problems, but said its existence makes solving them harder.
“The press can hold its magnifying glass up to our problems, bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen,” Stewart said. “Or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire.”
Still, Stewart said even with such political dialogue taking place, he feels “strangely, calmly good” because he said the uncompromising image of Americans depicted in the media is false.
“We know instinctively as a people that if we are to get through the darkness and back into the light, we have to work together,” Stewart said.