Restore Sanity: A Report from Waaaay in the Back
By Michael Winship
Mistakes were made.
"Let's face it," a fellow rallygoer admitted. "We committed several tactical errors this morning."
As you may have heard, the worst part of Saturday's Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in Washington, DC, was getting there.
We probably should have gotten up earlier. A lot earlier. Arriving at the Metro station nearest our hotel, my girlfriend Pat and I stood with dozens of others on the platform as train after train arrived, each so packed with rally attendees, their faces practically pressed to the window glass, it was impossible to get on board.
Finally, Pat suggested we take a train in the other direction, get off in the suburbs, then turn around, trying to get ahead of the mobs -- a good strategy that proved equally futile; there were just too many people. By 3 pm, the city's transit system reported that 350,000 passengers had ridden the system, the normal total for an entire Saturday. As yet another crammed train arrived, a nearby frustrated traveler sighed plaintively, "Is there anyone left in Maryland?"
Forsaking the subway for a bus ride, we finally got within walking distance, dropped off in Foggy Bottom near the State Department. So by the time we trudged over to the Mall to see Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert we were more than an hour and a half late for the big event and the crowd had reached perhaps a quarter million people. Meaning we saw the backs of a lot of heads and only occasionally, dimly could hear what was happening on the podium. Cat Stevens was there, right? (We caught up later, via C-SPAN.)
But it was worth it just to share in the overall exuberance of the crowd, although with Election Day glowering on the horizon sometimes it did feel a wee bit like On the Beach, with all those Australians boisterously singing "Waltzing Matilda" right before nuclear extinction.
And, as reported, the signs and banners were great. Good humored, they ranged from expressions of the silly and benign ("It's Very Nice to Be Here," "I Have a Sign") to the more pointed sentiment ("This Is a Democracy, Not an Auction," "Gay Nazi Mexicans Are Raising Our Taxes") to the intentional non sequitur (my personal favorite: "7-11 Was an Inside Job").
It was certainly the largest gathering I've seen at a DC rally since the anti-Vietnam protests of the late sixties and early seventies. And contrary to the predictions of some, it was not dominated by the young -- seniors were well-represented and stories abounded of planes and trains (including ours from New York) filled with older Americans on their way to Washington, exuberant fans of Stewart and Colbert sharing a message of rationality and wit triumphing over bellicosity and chaos.
But for all the laughs and congeniality on a sunny autumn day, for all the genuine rejection of right-wing cant and hypocrisy, there were a couple of things that seemed slightly askew. For while, as Stewart said of the media, "The 24-hour politico-pundit perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problems, but its existence makes solving them that much harder," unfortunately for us, neither do irony and jokes effect lasting solutions. Nor do they necessarily bridge the gap with those, as journalist James Maguire wrote, covering the rally for The Washington Monthly, "far more displaced by the long recession... Those folks don't want to 'restore sanity,' they want to restore their jobs."
What's more, Maguire asks, "Is this just a comedy skit writ large, a ginormous living diorama of a Daily Show 'live at the scene' report? Or is it, under cover of irony... an effort to influence the course of politics in the direction Stewart's humor so obviously leans?"
Comedians injecting themselves into the American political scene are nothing new. As David Bianculli points out in his book, Dangerously Funny, Will Rogers, Eddie Cantor, Gracie Allen, W.C. Fields, and even Howdy Doody staged mock presidential campaigns. In 1968, Pat Paulson of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on CBS actually had a professional political consultant for his faux White House run ("I don't want to be any more than I am today," the candidate claimed. "A common, ordinary, simple savior of America's destiny.").
Jon Stewart and his superb writing team have claimed to be nothing more than the kids who make wisecracks from the back of the classroom, never to be taken seriously as newsmakers or opinion leaders. But that hasn't really been true for a long time and now Stewart's standing in front of the class, lecturing at the blackboard.
Is that appropriate? And does it matter? Whether or not you agree, he's still the funniest teacher in school. Maybe, as a sign at Saturday's rally declared, "We Should Do This More Often."
Michael Winship is senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City