Jon Stewart knew what the real measure of success for the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear would be. As he came onstage Saturday he said it would be judged on its "intellectual coherence," but then he stopped. "Nah," it was about "size and color." Looking out over the estimated 150,000 to 300,000 people crowding the Mall from the west front of the Capitol almost to the Washington Monument, he said, "Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to count off. Pass the mike around, and say your number and then identify your demographic—you know, like Native American/lesbian."
Because everyone knew that a prime point of the event was to show that what Glenn Beck did with his (nearly pure white) Rally to Restore Honor on August 28 was like bragging about having over 100 friends on Facebook. By all counts Stewart’s (mostly white) rally was at least as large as Beck’s, especially if you count the thousands who turned away because they couldn’t get close enough to hear. (And for the record, CBS News, which gave Beck his lowest crowd size estimate of 85,000, put this one at 215,000.)
Size mattered, but Comedy Central wasn’t prepared for it. Not that it seemed to dampen the crowd’s spirits, but the only big TV screens were near the stage and invisible to anyone under six feet tall or not sitting on top of a Port-o-Potty, as some lucky few were. Loudspeakers hadn’t been placed at intervals down the length of Mall, and so anyone more than a few blocks away could only intermittently detect what was going on onstage, who was singing, or what Stewart or Colbert were drawing laughs for. At about 1 pm, the crowd back where I was began shouting goodnaturedly, "Louder! Louder! Louder!" Somebody behind me, who had to be from New York, shouted, "Are they cheering Ron Lauder?" Another yelled, "Quieter! Quieter! Quieter!" Everybody seemed to have passed through some tempermentally mild force field for the event.
Eventually some of the crowd broke through flexible plastic fences to open squares of grass to get more space. They didn’t do it with ’60s-style "sticking it to the Man" (er, the fence) fervor. They did it with a guilty "should we or shouldn’t we?" until jumping the barrier seemed like a sensible decision. As it was for Amy, 50, a Detroit art teacher who had never before been to DC and who described herself "one of the reasonable moderates" that Stewart had put out an APB for. She said she was ready to vote for McCain until he chose Palin. "I’m not happy with either party, but you have to be realistic," she explained as she held the fence aside to let people through, telling each one, "Be careful. Be careful."
Call of the Mild
And it was the mildness of the crowd, not its size, that was the real surprise for me: This was just what John Stewart called for it to be: a gathering of moderate, "reasonable" people who perhaps had never attended a political rally, but were responding, en masse, to the call of the mild. I had assumed that Stewart and Colbert would, whatever their intentions, produce a ventfest, with some frustrated people to the left of whatever Stewart claimed to be, or, on the other hand, folks coming mostly for the entertainment. There were plenty of both these types, to be sure. But most of the people I spoke to weren’t faking this reasonable moderate thing to please Stewart—it’s who they were.