On Saturday, roughly 250,000 people from throughout the nation fused their collective bodies together to make a point about the state of the nation by attending the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert-hosted “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” at the National Mall in Washington D.C.
I was there, along with Dave Klinkman of Ballard, 55, a manager of graphics for Color Craft, a company supplying exterior plane graphics for Boeing, who made the trek from Seattle to watch what will go down in history as a smashing public event, even if was, at best, a moderately entertaining television show.
Those who attended seemed less interested in any of the on-stage entertainment antics than to express, simply by their being there, their yearning to bring moderation and civility back to the national political discourse and reduce the level of rancor that all but dominates media reporting.
Much has been made of the crowd size, which reportedly exceeded by far the 60,000-person permit sought by the organizers. Bringing one’s body to the rally to swell the crowd size, rebuking the estimated 87,000 attending the Glenn Beck rally a few weeks before, was motivation enough for many, if not most of the people attending.
CBS News estimated 215,000; The Washington Post said that figure was far too low. The National Park Service refused to offer any estimate, understanding what a black hole crowd estimation can be. The New York Times also opted out of the crowd numbers game.
The Huffington Post’s headline on the crowd size, “Rally Attendance OBLITERATES Turnout to Glenn Beck Rally,” sums up my sense of the crowd, and its feelings.
It’s a safe bet that the next rally from the politically conservative side will try to obliterate the “Sanity” rally crowd figure. Aggressive media coverage of the Stewart event will drive the need for a larger crowd, ironic since the Stewart event was, in part, a critique of this kind of media coverage.
To understand the crowd size, imagine yourself standing nearly motionless, packed like sardines in the parking lot between Piers 69 and 70 on Seattle's waterfront to watch a live event that all but a handful saw only as a long — make that overlong — TV show. Many came well prepared with blankets and folding chairs, but most seemed ill-prepared to have their blankets trampled on as people tried negotiating their way through the tightly packed, standing room only crowd.
We got there nearly four hours before the scheduled start, and found ourselves about 150 feet from the event’s 40 by 60 main stage, which visually put a picture frame around the Capitol building. Quite beautiful. But we still could not see the show directly: A phalanx of TV cameras shooting the actual show blocked our view, leaving us to see the show on giant TV screens. A handful of the crowd, perhaps 2,000 to 3,000, actually saw the show live. So like the rest of the attendees, and the rest of the nation, we watched the show on the jumbo TVs.
But we were the lucky ones.
After the show, I walked all the way to the back of where the crowd had gathered. Because of insufficient planning, tens of thousands found themselves stranded without being to see or hear the show; there were no TV screens or audio systems provided. The Washington Post also reported about the many people unable to get to the rally because the regional subway system failed to cope with the unexpectedly large crowd.
For many stuck in the areas with no TV or audio, there was also the added distraction of what was probably a practice session by what sounded like hundreds of drummers coming from a nearby military museum. Their marching-band drum cadence went on for hours throughout the rally time frame, all but drowning out the little snippets of talk and music that drifted back from the stage.
Oddly enough, however, the people I spoke in those far reaches of the crowd were happy simply to have been there. Perhaps they knew they were part of the video clips that would be endlessly analyzed on TV over the next few days.
Rudy Sanchez of New York, along with Ingrid Barillas, her sister, a friend and assorted children, whose rally base camp was at the that far end, were happy to be part of the experience. “We could hear some of the performers,” Barillas told me, “and we were appreciating all of the interaction with all of the other people that came for the rally. . . We’re enjoying the day: a day of sanity.”
Added Sanchez: “It was a very refreshing break from all the over-the-top speeches and hyperbole that I have heard that has really permeated throughout the year. It just seemed like reasonable people getting together and bringing some normalcy to whatever discourse we want to share.”
For my part, the show itself felt strained. Stewart and Colbert aren’t vaudeville comedians, and the nature of the event — the stage, the crowds, and three hours of content to fill — is a daunting task. Much of the humor fell flat; the two comedians’ alleged rivalry, which forms much of their interaction never really works on TV, and did so even less on the giant stage.
Klinkman, who came to the rally alone, first understood the impact of the event when he viewed it on the giant TV screens surrounding the crowd. "After seeing that crowd I got a sense that this was a pretty big deal, that this was like a glimpse of what could happen."
Initially he felt it was right that major celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Bruce Springsteen were not at the rally. After attending, however, his feelings changed. "Because of the rally and all the young people, I think it was a missed opportunity for Springsteen. He's kind of the iconic music voice of the event.
"A rally like this might not happen again."
The last words about the rally came from Stewart, and those occurred in the last 15 minutes of the event. Many people could have dispensed with the show itself and would have settled for hearing his reasons why everyone gathered for the event.
Stewart is the heart and soul of the sanity-in-media movement, no matter how hard he tries to avoid that label and, thus, the power inherent in being in that position.
“So, uh, what exactly was this (rally)?" Stewart said. "I can't control what people think this was: I can only tell you my intentions. . .
"We hear every damned 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 damned day! The only place we don't is here (in Washington) or on cable TV!
“But Americans don't live here, or on cable TV. Where we live, our values and principles form the foundation that sustains us while we get things done —not the barriers that prevent us from getting things done.
“(We) know, instinctively, as a people, that if we are to get through the darkness and back into the light, we have to work together. And the truth is there will always be darkness, and sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel isn't the promised land.
“Sometimes, it's just New Jersey.”
On Sunday, before flying back to Seattle, Klingman told me, "I felt the Stewart speech was heartfelt. That may be the result of many people (at the rally) listening quietly to a comedian being as sincere as he can.
"I wonder how well it will play on TV."