By Jim Marquardt
We get up early and walk down 15th Street from the Double Tree Hotel on Rhode Island Avenue. It’s a beautiful, brisk morning, with the sun promising to make it warmer. Washington D.C. is packed with people going to Jon Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity.” Ann and I figure we’d better have a hearty breakfast; it may be a while before we can eat again. It’s about 9:30 and the streets are already filled. We hurry into a cafeteria on the corner of 14th and F Streets and fill up on bacon and eggs. We hold back on the second cup of coffee, don’t know how easy it will be to get to a porta-pottie. Next to us is a table of college kids, all eating, chatting, texting and talking on cell phones. We ask if they’re going to the Rally. “Oh yeah,” they yell gleefully, “It’s a happening.”
We get to the National Mall at 10:30. People are surging from all directions, trying to get close to the stage, the dome of the beautiful Capital building prominent behind it. Big banners flank the stage, “Restore Sanity” and in smaller lettering “And/or Fear,” a nod to Stephen Colbert’s satirical opposing rally. We thought we were getting there early, the event isn’t supposed to start until noon, but already tens of thousands of people are in front of us and the stage is a quarter-mile away. We’re lucky to be near jumbo TV screens which are showing recent bits by Stewart and Colbert. Some smart people who have obviously been to rallies before are sitting smugly in those collapsible chairs that fit into a big sock. Other experienced rally-goers brought blankets or cardboard to sit on, but you can’t really see much unless you’re standing.
People are laughing at home-made signs, like “Death panels have yet to kill my grandparents.” That’s about as partisan as they get. Most of the signs want to demonstrate cleverness, “Eschew obfuscation please” and “I’m mad as hell at people who are mad as hell.” Stewart himself had suggested a sign “I disagree with you, but I’m pretty sure you’re not Hitler.” We expected the crowd to be Democrat and liberal, but there is no political rant in evidence. One woman tells Ann that she, her daughter and a friend flew in the night before from California. A middle-aged woman from Virginia is holding up a sign “Let’s talk about it.” The crowd, estimated the next day at 215,000, stretches behind us, beyond the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial.
The Roots, John Legend and the 4troops warm up the crowd. Youngsters obviously know them even if we don’t. Close to one o’clock, Jon Stewart takes the stage to huge applause and phones Steven Colbert who supposedly is hiding in a “Fear Bunker.” When Colbert finally makes it to the stage he promotes Fear against Stewart’s Sanity.
Pundits had cast the rally as a response to Glen Beck’s “Restoring Honor Rally” in August, but Beck appears only briefly in a TV collage from different channels which Stewart uses to deplore the media emphasis on the nation’s gripes and disagreements. Sam Waterston reads a humorous poem. Don Novello as Father Guido Sarducci (where has he been?) gives a humorous invocation that successfully avoids sacrilege. Yusuf Islam sings “Peace Train,” Ozzy Osbourne sings “Crazy Train,” and the O’Jays join everyone together with “Love Train.”
Stewart presents “Medals of Reasonableness” to, among others, Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga for his calm response to an umpire’s bad call that cost him a perfect game. Another “Reasonableness Award” goes to Jacob Isum for stopping an evangelist from burning a Koran. Colbert competes with “Medals of Fear,” which depict a naked man running with scissors, and are presented to Mark Zuckerberg for ruining everyone’s privacy with Facebook, and to a black T-shirt said to be worn by CNN’s Anderson Cooper at frightful disasters.
Sheryl Crow belts out songs and Tony Bennet delivers a strained version of “America.” I missed Ray Charles. Ending their mock competition, Colbert and Stewart join in an original song “Greatest Strongest Country in the World.”
Just before three p.m., Stewart speaks seriously to a quiet audience. “We live now in hard times, not end times…The country’s 24-hour, politico-pundit, perpetual panic ‘conflictivator’ did not cause our problems, but makes solving them that much harder…The inability to distinguish terrorists from Muslims makes us less safe, not more… Americans live their lives more as people who are just a little late for something they have to do…impossible things that are only made possible through the little, reasonable compromises we all make…The truth is there will always be darkness. And sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel is not the promised land. Sometimes it’s just New Jersey.”
It takes an hour to get free of the enormous crowd and back to the hotel and our car. We only see smiling faces. Though we’ve been standing for hours, Ann and I are aglow from the experience and glad we came. We’re not sure why, maybe just being with other Americans, in the midst of the nation’s beautiful buildings and memorials, and sharing the confidence that somehow we’ll find our way out of the problems that surround us.