Sanity Reigns in Jon Stewart’s America

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Photo: Kris Connor / Getty Images

There was only one point at the Rally to Restore Sanity when Jon Stewart acknowledged that, sometimes, it was reasonable to act rashly — he gave a "medal of reasonableness" to Jacob Isom, a 23-year-old Texan skateboarder who rescued a kerosene-soaked Koran. The rest of it was a punchy celebration of the etiquette awakening. Stephen Colbert learned not to fear Muslims thanks to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Stewart chilled with Sheryl Crow and Kid Rock. Sam Waterston read a poem! R2-D2 made a cameo to prove a point about tolerance!

The day started with a shuttle bus from the Marriott Suites outside Bethesda, the deep-blue Maryland suburb that David Brooks used as the model for Bobos in Paradise. It's the kind of neighborhood where you might see "Stewart Colbert 2012" lawn signs, and it's where the Daily Show audience members on the Oprah "everyone gets an expenses-paid trip to the rally!" plan were staying. When the bus arrived at the subway station, there was a line that stretched outside the station, around the block. A woman with close-cropped curly gray hair and mom-clogs held a sign declaring, "Turn it down a notch." She pleasantly shouted directions at first-time ticket-swipers. "You just stick it in!" she said.

I asked one member of the woman's ad hoc entourage, a college student from North Carolina named Anders, why he decided to come up for the rally. "'Cause I'm a rationalist," he said, with a nervous chuckle. Greg, from the D.C. suburb of Potomac, said he wanted to "stick a thumb in the eye of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck and their media divisiveness." My group didn't want to wait, so we decided to call a taxi. The cab driver was listening to the NPR quiz show "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me."

We arrived at the National Mall and found an enormous crowd embracing the virtues of blue-state America, mixing equal parts kindness and irony. A smirking girl with blond dreadlocks held up a poster: "The fear is too damn high." Two chipper redheads held up earnest signs that detailed nice things Obama did, like increase body armor for troops and scientific-education funding. A dad pushed a stroller; his placard read "Don't be a baby, stop whining." I was walking down Pennsylvania Avenue, trying to get away from the throng of polite nudgers, when a dude in a goatee gave me a nod of recognition — he was dressed as a bear, protesting that "Colbert is unfair to bears." Someone carried a giant pink banner that said, only, "Relax." A self-proclaimed "militant atheist with a gay agenda" offered "free hugs." Jon Stewart may have thrown a few jabs at NPR (something about Juan Williams and hemp tote bags), but the whole thing felt like a Garrison Keillor fever dream, with one tagboard reading "Minnesota Nice Sane." Even the weather was above average.

Stewart gave up on an earlier plan to have the crowd count off one by one, and so reliable estimates of the crowd's size were hard to come by. CBS commissioned a firm that put the number at 215,000; the same company had estimated a mere 87,000 for the Glenn Beck event in August. (Beck insisted that "Restoring Honor" had at least half a million.)

The hosts indulged their absurdist urges, putting John Oliver in a Peter Pan costume and leading the crowd in a chant of "Is it helping?" so they could shout down a giant papier-mâché model of Colbert called the "fear-zilla." The constant presence of Colbert — interrupting, jibing, wearing an Evel Knievel jumpsuit, summoning Ozzy Osbourne — made clear that the rally organizers would rather channel Johnny Carson than Walter Cronkite. The O-Jays broke out into "Love Train" (as a rejoinder to Cat Stevens's "Peace Train" and Osbourne's "Crazy Train") and Jeff Tweedy and Mavis Staples sang a duet. "Did you go to Live Aid in Philly?" someone yelled to a friend. "This is kind of like that." The earnestness didn't max out until the end, when Stewart spun out an elaborate metaphor on how America is like the entrance to the Holland Tunnel.

"This was not a rally to ridicule people of faith or people of activism or to look down our noses at the heartland or passionate argument or to suggest that times are not difficult and that we have nothing to fear. They are and we do. But we live now in hard times, not end times. ... Sanity will always be and has always been in the eye of the beholder. To see you here today and the kind of people that you are has restored mine."

The crowd was smaller, whiter, more wistful and less ebullient than the million or so who crammed the capital for Obama's inauguration, tens of thousands of sensible shoes shuffling in front of the Capitol in search of the same liberal, gauzy message. There were "birth control matters" stickers, Sierra Club T-shirts, and canvassers urging bystanders to "Vote Sanity." I saw very few people wearing union sweatshirts, presumably because they were out campaigning.

At one point, Stewart and Colbert put on matching American-flag sweaters and sang a ditty about America being the "greatest, strongest country in the world." The crowd loved it. "From gay men who like football, to straight men who like Glee," Stewart warbled to wild applause. It reminded me of the response to a speech at the 2004 Democratic convention when a charismatic Senate candidate from Illinois pointed out that "we coach Little League in the blue states and, yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states." Democrats — hopeful, inspired, grasping for common ground — lost the election three months later.

Additional reporting by Beth Stebner.

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