A high-spirited crowd numbering in the tens of thousands flocked to the National Mall for the "Rally to Restore Sanity And/Or Fear" on Saturday in what organizers billed as a "comedic call for calm."
WASHINGTON — It was an early sign that this was not an ordinary political rally: The organizers put the crowd estimate at between 10 million and 6 billion.
And on the National Mall, the signs were equally zany. “This is a good sign,” said one sign. “I like Ice Cream,” said another. And a man dressed as a bear wore a T-shirt reading, “Free Bear Hugs.”
The high-spirited crowd numbering in the tens of thousands flocked to what organizers billed as a “comedic call for calm.” The turnout clogged highways, and filled subways and buses to the point of overflow.
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Much of the “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear,” put on by “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart and his Comedy Central colleague Stephen Colbert — who poses as an ultraconservative on his “Colbert Report” — resembled a large-scale variety show, with humorous sketches and surprise musical guests such as Kid Rock, Tony Bennett and Yusuf Islam, the former Cat Stevens.
Colbert arrived on stage like a rescued Chilean mine worker, in a capsule from a supposed underground bunker, after Stewart made a show of counting the crowd one by one.
But the three-hour event ended on a serious note when Stewart, in a break from his usual satirical stance, made an impassioned defense of U.S. unity and denounced cable-news depictions of a country riven with animosity.
“The image of Americans that is reflected back to us by our political and media process is false,” he said.
“We hear every damn day about how fragile our country is, on the brink of catastrophe, torn by polarizing hate, and how it’s a shame that we can’t work together to get things done. 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.”
As organizers had promised, the rally sought to avoid any partisan message; none of the speakers even urged people to vote in Tuesday’s midterm elections. The most overt political statement was made by Velma Hart, who famously told President Obama at a town-hall meeting in September she was “exhausted” from defending him.
Hart, who received one of the day’s four “medals of reasonableness,” drew cheers when she said of Obama: “I appreciated his answer and I appreciate the answer that he’s given us every day since. So I’m very excited.”
Some in attendance viewed the event as a much-needed political revival for the left, waving signs calling for gay rights and jabbing at the “tea party” movement. “I’m from Kentucky. Sorry about Rand Paul,” read one. “Put Your Tea On Ice,” declared another.
“Jon Stewart might not have wanted a political rally; this is a political rally,” said Vince Beltrami, 48, president of the Alaska AFL-CIO, who flew with his wife from Anchorage to attend. “This is reasonable people’s opportunity to stand up against the crazy.”
His sign read: “Did I have to fly 3776 miles to refudiate Sarah Palin? You betcha!”
Still, the majority seemed motivated less by partisanship than a desire to speak out against the rancorous political discourse that has dominated the 2010 elections.
“We feel that a very radical minority has controlled the dialogue of our politics and it’s about time the more rational population start getting involved,” said Brian Sibson, 51, of Jacksonville, Fla.
Authorities would not estimate the crowd size, though the National Park Service decided to open an extra section of the Mall that was not included on the initial 60,000-person rally permit, according to Bill Line, spokesman for the Park Service. By 2 p.m., Metro ridership had reached 330,000 people, comparable to an entire day’s tally for a usual Saturday, according to Metro spokeswoman Angela Gates.
Some felt let down that Stewart and Colbert did not deliver a specific call to action.
“I was disappointed, but I think their whole point is that we’ve politicized almost everything and we can’t take ourselves too seriously,” said Adam Schreifels, 38, of Minneapolis.
Others said they were heartened just to encounter such a large number of like-minded citizens.
“I think this is an important statement about how a lot of people feel politics have eroded,” said Anne Menard, 57, of Harrisburg, Pa.
Fans organized at least 20 satellite rallies in other cities, including Seattle; Austin, Texas; Los Angeles; Chicago; and Boise, Idaho.
The main event on the National Mall included many traditional motifs of political rallies: It began with the National Anthem sung by a group of former U.S. service members called 4Troops, and ended with Bennett crooning “America the Beautiful.”
The rest, however, was less typical: an amalgam of taped comedy bits; a sing-off between Yusuf Islam doing “Peace Train” and rocker Ozzy Osbourne performing “Crazy Train.” The compromise was a version of “Love Train,” sung by the O’Jays.
Then came a mock debate between Stewart and Colbert about reason versus fear.
“So what exactly was this?” Stewart asked in his concluding speech. “This was not a rally to ridicule people of faith or people of activism, or look down our noses at the heartland or passionate argument, or to suggest that times are not difficult and we have nothing to fear. They are and we do.
“But we live now in hard times, not end times,” he continued. “And we can have animus and not be enemies. But unfortunately, one of our main tools in delineating the two broke. The country’s 24-hour political pundit perpetual panic conflictionator did not cause our problems, but its existence makes solving them that much harder. … If we amplify everything, we hear nothing.”
The address marked an unusual bout of sincerity for Stewart, who acknowledged as much: “I know there are boundaries for a comedian-pundit-talker guy, and I’m sure I’ll find out tomorrow how I have violated them.”
Material from The New York Times and The Washington Post is included in this report.