The Rally To Restore Sanity: Did It Succeed?

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Preaching to the choir?
What's the point?

It was a question I asked myself more than once in the last month: while I was booking the hotel room, then sitting on the flight from Houston to Washington, DC, and finally walking with tens of thousands of others down Pennsylvania Avenue to attend the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear on Saturday.

Initially announced as the "Rally to Restore Sanity" in September by Daily Show host Jon Stewart, the gathering had an ostensible purpose that was just as stated: to coax out an alleged silent majority of those weary of the antics of extreme voices on both ends of the political spectrum controlling the public discourse on politics. You know, the ordinary, decent, hard-working Americans who long for the return of...I don't know, the MacNeil/Lehrer Report, or something.
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Photos by Pete Vonder Haar
The signs were entertaining
That the event would be political theater was never in doubt. Stewart and Stephen Colbert -- who'd merged his own March to Keep Fear Alive with Stewart's rally less than two weeks prior -- are first and foremost satirists, even if Stewart himself has, consciously or not, increasingly assumed the role of muckraker extraordinaire/supreme shit-disturber. He did nothing to put off this opinion with his speech at the rally's end, but more on that later.

So was sanity restored? Fear kept alive? Yes, and...yes.

You got the impression even before Saturday that the event was going to be big. Like, US  Festival big. The lazier media sources pointed to the Rally's Facebook page and its 200,000 attendees for proof, because as we all know, nobody ever RSVP'd for something on Facebook and subsequently backed out. Stewart should have set up an Evite page as well, just to be thorough.

But there were other, more reliable indicators. Hotels in the District and immediate suburbs were booked weeks ago, seats on flights into Reagan National and Dulles airports were few and very far between. My own flight from Houston to DCA was easily half-filled with rally attendees, going solely by Colbert T-shirts and people reading Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great.

The evidence mounted Saturday morning, as my wife and I were getting our things together for the trek to the National Mall. Here was a couple who'd driven from Kansas City, there was a text from my friend Dave, who was riding the train in from Philly and reporting it was packed with sign-toting Rally-goers. As far out as Dupont Circle and Crystal City, we could see bands of people walking in the direction of the Capitol. And all this before 9 a.m.

What was also becoming apparent was the demographic make-up of the crowd. I'd written a hasty aside in my notebook on the flight up that I wondered how dissimilar the crowd was going to be demographically from your average Tea Party get-together, sarcastically predicting (with the help of a couple Jack and Cokes) there'd be an overwhelming majority of white, upper-middle-class folks. This was true, to an extent, but I saw plenty of people of Asian and Middle Eastern extraction (not a census category well represented at Glenn Beck's rally), and a much greater spread across age groups. There were many so-called "millenials," sure, describing this as their generation's Woodstock, but also plenty of people their parents' age, and older.

But let's get back to the comparisons to Beck's rally (because that's what everyone seems to be doing). CBS, who estimated 87,000 attendees for Beck's "Rally to Restore Honor," put the total for the Stewart/Colbert shindig at 215,000. Which just goes to prove more people are interested in sanity than honor. Obviously, we're not feudal Japan.

The National Park Service stopped doing crowd estimates after the controversy over their figures for the Million Man March, and I have no idea how to gauge crowd size, especially when I'm in the middle of one and advancing at the rate of three feet a minute. There were a shit-ton of people there. The crowd, not counting the usual areas kept clear by police for emergency vehicles, stretched back almost to the Lincoln Memorial, with spillover choking Madison Drive and Independence Avenue as well. By the time the Roots took the stage to kick things off at noon, it was almost impossible to move.

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