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.

Like Bill James, a 48-year-old social worker from San Diego, who said he was unlikely to attend any other rally, "progressives or otherwise, other than what my church does." He came all this way to "support moderation and to speak out against the hyberbole in our political discussion." He describes himself as "moderate Democrat. But I don’t agree with everything the Democrats do. I’m a union member [SEIU], and I don’t agree with everything the union does. But I don’t call them bad names." He brought his 17-year-old son, who’s turning it into a school project by asking people "What do you think sanity is?" (Good question.)

Then there were the fake Tea Party people, whom I at first mistook for the real deal (journalism gold would have been someone who attended both this and Beck’s rally, but it wasn’t to be). They were six friends in their 40s and 50s who live on the same Baltimore street, and were holding signs like "Think outside the Fox" and "I masturbate and I vote (not simultaneously) (anymore)." Brande Meese, a retired decorative artist, said, "We tend to be a little more hard left. Republicans have moved the center to the right in a very deliberate, cynical way." Her friend Chris Mitchell, a 44-year-old tailor, wore his teabags from a tricorn hat made of tin foil. "I’m here for the Keep Fear Alive rally. I think fear keeps people in line." Stewart’s a tad too moderate. "He doesn’t want to get Bill Mahered," said Brande, referring to the way ABC kicked the host off the air when he said the 9/11 terrorists weren’t cowards. "But we like how Stewart and Colbert blur the lines," she said, meaning between real and fake, politics and comedy. "We’re here for the fun, real fun."

MoveOn communications director Ilyse Hogue told me that, too, when I asked if she was concerned that the same people who might otherwise be canvassing in toss-up districts on the last weekend before the election will instead be going to the rally, a concern some Democrats and writers have raised. Not at all, she said. MoveOn was organizing house parties to watch the rally and make election calls. A contingent of RepublicCorp, the mock MoveOn group that Lauren Valle was working for when she got her head stomped in Kentucky, was marching on the mall (without incident this time, of course). Independently, Facebook sites are coordinating meet-ups in at least forty-seven states and other countries via satellite.

In any case, the rally drew its people who weren’t going to vote no way, no how. "I’m a big Jon Stewart fan. But no, I’m not voting. I never heard anything coming out of a politician’s mouth that in any way represented me," said Greg Harris, 49, a portrait artist in Athens, Georgia. Harris supports the healthcare bill even though "it didn’t go far enough," but won’t vote to keep the party that passed it in the House. "It’s a waste of time."

Then there was Doug Healy, 47, a Boston history teacher (the mall was crawling with teachers) who said that after voting for Obama, "I took a solemn oath never to vote for a Democrat again—even if he’s running against Palin in 2012. As long as the Republicans roll over the Dems, and the Dems keep rolling over progressives, I won’t vote." This was news to his best friend, Evan Driscoll, 41, a software engineer who flew in from San Francisco. "I didn’t come here for the entertainment, but to hopefully get counted at probably the last big liberal rally we’ll see in a long time."

There’s no excuse for not voting, regardless of which party you vote for, said Brendon, 30, a landscaper from Long Island, who said that Big Sanity was definitely not taking him away from GOTV work. "I’ll still be doing that Monday and I’ll be doing that Tuesday," he said adding that the rally is more important than another round of door-to-door: "For this generation, this is the way to motivate them."

Echoes of Beck

This was the anti-Beck rally, not just politically (at one point a group of protesters surrounded the Fox News truck near the stage and started a loud little demonstration just for them), but conceptually, too. It was theater meant to critique theater—very Artaud, very Yippie and sometimes seemingly motivated as much by a revulsion for crude, over-the-top stagecraft as for conservative politics. And yet there were curious similarities between the two restoration events.

Beck and Stewart both asked their people to leave the mall cleaner than they found it. While Beck used his cleaned-up mall as a weapon to denigrate the much larger and messier 2008 Inaugural (so full of, uh, urbanites), Stewart took it to another level: "I would like to see some topiaries that weren’t here before."

But the interesting thing was that both crowds did pretty much what the TV guy told them to do. When Beck pleaded with his marchers not to bring signs, it was out of fear that they would bring the sort of racist, Obama-is-Hitler signs that had branded the Tea Party as extreme, and indeed, his rally saw very few signs. Stewart’s folks had clearly been on the Daily Show website, where there seemed to be a competition to create the most absurdist, Jon-like parody signs, and where the spirit of Halloween had gotten across. The "worst" Sanity sign I saw was held by a guy wearing what looked like a shroud-sized condom and read, "I’ve been a bad, bad penis."

I caught only one sign that endorsed a specific politician (for Charlie Crist). Mostly the place was popping with like-minded understatements, though I never saw the same sign twice:

"Glenn Beck is NOT very good."
"I am willing to compromise."
"This sign is spelled correctly."
"Have you seen my honor?"
"Let’s keep mustaches where they belong" (over a drawing of Charlie Chaplin).
"Obama is my Ninja."
"Pat Paulsen for President."
"I’m mad as hell at the people who are mad as hell."
"Death Panelist."
"Colbert for malevolent dictator" next to "Stewart for benevolent dictator."
"Restore Whitey, not Sanity."
Painted on the side of a truck: "Angry Mob on Board."

Jibes against the Tea Party abounded, but very few that impugned it for imitating National Socialism: "Screw Tea—This IS America. Join the Beer party." "Every time Sarah Palin Tweets, God kills a kitten." "It’s not tea" over a hand-drawn picture of a tea pot pouring into a pitcher of Kool-Aid. Perhaps the tone was best set by the man who carried a pole from which dangled a puppet with Glenn Beck’s face—which was itself carrying a smaller puppet with Glenn Beck’s face.

In the end, Stewart was clearly claiming that his rally was aimed at America’s true center, perhaps even suggesting that the left (or, anyway, certainly not the right) is now the center of US politics. But what does "the center" mean, exactly? Do you find it at the midpoint on the bell curve where most people are economically, and the thing to do is to try to push those people to the bell’s better side? Or does Stewart think the center lies on a cultural gradient, somewhere equidistant between Pope Benedict XVI and Marilyn Manson? Or is the center wherever people are who don’t feel the need to amplify their anxieties, where they’re focused on raising families or pursuing their careers, where politics are school board meetings and church poverty drives—really, a place not very far from where Richard Nixon’s "Silent Majority" lived?

Actually, I think Stewart’s center is more on a sentimental continuum, focused on the "little guy" and what he feels and needs. It’s a personal politics, bounded by normative conventions like family, sex, friendship, intoxication and a modicum of courtesy and comfort. And what Jon Stewart finds excessive is any politics that disrupts those personal values in the name of a putatively overriding moral or political goal. There is a long Jewish tradition of political humor (that seldom calls itself political) dedicated to this sort of thing. It grows out of minority status—where House Democrats, they tell us, are about to return—and tends to punch up at bullies and jingoistic patriots even as it enshrines the courage it takes to distinguish yourself as outside their control. Think of Groucho Marx in vaudeville, taking his brothers’ musical act to Nagadoches, Texas, and being loudly mocked and ignored by the locals until he comes to the front of the stage and says, "Nagadoches…is full of roaches." The house comes down.

Maybe it’s because America is such a diverse land, which greatly needs a unifying concept to bind it together, that this sort of humor, aimed at the pretension of those who claim to have found the nation’s purpose, is so common. Or maybe it’s because this is a country that is uniquely dedicated to the personal in the first place—we’re supposed to be pursuing happiness, after all, Thomas Jefferson put that in the Declaration of Independence. There’s an inherent irony there: we’ve built an empire that spanned an entire continent, developed the atomic bomb and established a global hegemony just so some guy could carry a sign below the Capitol that reads, "Vote Palin and Beck" (above photos of Monty Python’s Michael Palin and guitar fusion hero Jeff Beck).

"I can’t control what people think this was," Stewart said, in a closing speech that attempted to explain why everybody showed up. "I can only tell you my intentions. 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. The country’s twenty-four-hour political pundit perpetual panic conflictenator did not cause our problems, but it’s existence makes solving them that much harder…. If we amplify everything, we hear nothing. Not being able to distinguish between real racists and Tea Partyers or real bigots and Juan Williams and Rick Sanchez is an insult, not only to those people but to the racists themselves who have put in the exhausting effort it takes to hate."

"We hear every damn day about how fragile our country is," Stewart said, and "how it’s a shame that we can’t work together to get things done. But the truth is we do. We work together to get things done every damn day! The only place we don’t is here or on cable TV."

It’s the media, stupid. As I walk across 7th Street to leave the Mall, the crowd is quiet, almost no one speaks. A woman says, "It’s too quiet." Then a young guy shouts, "Marijuana made me gay." Laughs. Another guy answers, "My gayness made me smoke marijuana." A middle-aged man, catching the spark, says, "Hitler was a Nazi! This is true!"

And it is.