On the Bus With Arianna and the Sanity Restorers

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Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

In the short history of Citi Field, no one has made 10,000 people more excited than Arianna Huffington. A month ago, in a moment of nationally televised “irrational exuberance,” she told Jon Stewart she’d drive anyone in New York to the Rally for Sanity in Washington, D.C., for free. “I thought it was going to be a few dozen people,” she says now. Overnight, thousands of people signed up.

At 4:45 a.m. on Saturday morning, several hundred people are already huddled in the Citi Field parking lot. For the next hour and a half, thousands more will join them. Some are wearing Halloween costumes, more are carrying signs. They’re more diverse than expected — not all of them are young, not all of them are white, and not all of them, despite where they’re headed, appear to be sane.

One man carries a giant, papier-mâché head on a stick. Another has traveled here from D.C., only to take the Arianna bus back to DC. One retired couple, Tim and Alice Samuelson, flew to New York from Alaska on Friday night and are flying back on Sunday.

By and large, sanity reigns. Janet Moglia is going to her first rally since demonstrating against the Vietnam War. Chaelieghla Davis, a recent Sarah Lawrence grad, is just happy to be around like-minded people. “It’s kind of disheartening to live in this world sometimes. And it’s nice to meet some moderates,” she says.

Huffington says that the final price tag for 220 buses, security staff, and the use of Citi Field and RFK Stadium in D.C. will be somewhere around $500,000. (It would have been more if a friend of Huffington’s hadn’t offered his company’s event planning services pro bono.) The Huffington Post will pay more than half of the total, and sponsors will cover the rest.

A car service Prius (of course) dropped Huffington off sometime after 6 a.m. Unlike the crowd, half of whom appeared to have come straight from a drunken Halloween party on the Lower East Side, she is remarkably put together. Her makeup is expert, her hair is manicured, and her outfit suggests a woman who knows that she’s going to be in a thousand pictures over the next 24 hours.

Chipper, she works the line like she’s running for office all over again. People are circling for pictures, autographs, and hugs. She goes down the line, shaking hands, asking people where they’re from, and nodding her head as they tell her what’s wrong with America. When she sees a group of young women wearing burkas, she walks straight to them and extends a hand.

She grabs a megaphone: “It’s so cold. But it’s going to be warm on the buses. There are refreshments and yogurts and nuts.” Someone gives her a bracelet that spells “SANITY BUS” in lettered beads. It’s one of those pieces of jewelry that you made in summer camp when you were eight. Huffington wears it for the rest of the morning.

Now the crowd is chanting. “Ar-ee-ahna! Ar-ee-ahna! Ar-ee-ahna!” She stands, hands clasped, smiling into the crowd.

After she makes sure the 300 people who showed up without RSVPing have a way to get to D.C., Huffington boards her bus to a round of applause. It’s filled with friends, staffers, personal guests, and media. When I visit her in the front row, she talks to me for a half-hour. The rally is great not because it’s political, but because “it’s about settling the debate about how we’re conducting the debate.” Which is why she thinks it will “have zero impact on the election.” Then why did Obama go on The Daily Show? It doesn’t matter, because his performance was poor. “It pointed out his Achilles’ heels,” the switch from “Yes We Can” to “Yes We Can, But.”

As I get up, she asks her staff to take a picture of us — she wants to tweet about our chat. Then she’s back to her BlackBerry, reading direct messages from Cory Booker and e-mailing back and forth with Barbara Walters. Everyone wants to know about the 10,000 hitchhikers she picked up on her way to D.C.