It may not have had the biting edge of its hosts' late-night comedy shows, but Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's rally drew a huge crowd that went crazy for sanity. Howard Kurtz reports. PLUS:
Watch the rally's 7 best moments!
It was a bit of an insane scene getting to the sanity rally.
The size of the crowds took everyone—at least in the professional prognostication class—by surprise.
Maybe Jon Stewart is as big as Glenn Beck. Maybe bigger. Maybe passionate moderation is underrated. Or maybe these hordes of people have nothing better to do on a bright, crisp fall afternoon than to gather in the shadow of the Capitol and shout for sanity.
They kept pouring off the streets to ear-splitting music, carrying such restrained signs as "Less Douche-y, More Truthy" and "Repeating something at increasing volume does not make it true" (along with the odd "Legalize Marijuana"). They filled the vast expanse of the Mall, stretching nearly to the Washington Monument. They were mostly young, mostly well-behaved, mostly intent on having a good time rather than, say, stomping on a protestor's head.
I was in a sea of standups on a press riser, listening to correspondents reporting on the awesomenesss of the crowd size. There was a British woman with a mike who sounded smarter than everyone else, due to her Oxford diction.
When Stewart emerged, with a less-than-scintillating cry of "no littering," he immediately mocked the crowd-size game by declaring "over 10 million people here." Then there was a labored attempt to count the crowd demographically, followed by the stagey elevation of Stephen Colbert, who emerged from his "fear bunker" in a red-white-and-blue super-suit and tried to strike some terror in the crowd's heart. (The sound of bees didn't get it done.)
That was the heart of the shtick: Stewart calling for calm reasonableness, Colbert playing the fearmonger. The essence of the outdoor show, then, was the event itself—the fact that all these people had come together in search of a moment. Plus, there were no commercials.
If much of the material was weaker than the average Daily Show, the grandiosity of the venue seemed to compensate. The gathering lived up to its promise not to be overtly, or even implicitly, political. Arianna Huffington, who spent a quarter-million bucks to bus people here from New York, beamed as she watched the proceedings. "It's going perfectly," she said. "Not one wrong note anyone could point to. No one could say it's political."
Whether it was Sam Waterston reading a poem or Colbert interrupting the former Cat Stevens' rendition of "Peace Train" in favor of Ozzy Osbourne, the mood was mellow, the barbs inoffensive, the cutting edge of late-night entertainment noticably dulled.
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Perhaps the most mocking moments involved the media. Stephen Colbert chided the news organizations—ABC, CBS, the Associated Press, the New York Times and National Public Radio—for banning their journalists from attending the rally. Otherwise, he warned, "someone might think that NPR is liberal. No one could tell from the free pledge drive hemp-fiber toat bags they use to carry their organic kale rollups to their company compost parties."
The essence of the outdoor show, then, was the event itself—the fact that all these people had come together in search of a moment.
But concerns about a political message turned out to be overblown. The only mention of President Obama was when Stewart gave a Reasonableness Award to Velma Hart, the supporter who challenged him at a CNBC town hall.
The show finally got traction in the final minutes, when the target was not the broken political system but television news itself. Beck, whose followers filled this same grassy space two months ago, made a half-dozen appearances in a video montage devoted to fearmongering ("How many sex offenders live in your neighborhood?...We'll have global governance run by elites…Gosh, we'd better wake up soon.")
But Beck and Rush and Hannity and O'Reilly ("far-left loons") were balanced by clips of Ed Schultz ("Republicans lie!") and Keith Olbermann ("un-American bastards.") Stewart was reduced to brandishing a remote and suggesting people turn it off.
Did Stewart and Colbert strike a blow for sanity, or just furnish an afternoon's ephemeral entertainment? Jon turned serious at the end, even while acknowledging that "there are boundaries for a comedian/pundit/talker guy."
And did he take aim at Washington? No, it was once again the low-hanging fruit of the 24-hour cable news "conflictinator." This machine "did not cause our problems"—whew, I thought he might call for banning the channels—"but its existence makes solving them that much harder…If we amplify everything, we hear nothing."
Well, give him this. He came out from under the gags, shed his comedic persona, and took a stand. Stewart's outrage at the sensationalism and superficiality of cable is largely on target. But it is, as he said, a "funhouse mirror" held up to a nasty political system and a conflict-driven society. In that sense, it was too much of an easy target for a man who, briefly, occupied a huge stage.
But the crowd didn't seem to mind.
Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program "Reliable Sources," Sundays at 11 am ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.