WASHINGTON - Saturday's "Restore Sanity and/or Fear" rally, organized by comedian-newscasters Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, was the biggest national political rally of the season. Stewart and Colbert had kept the message of the event under tight wraps. On Saturday, speaking to the crowd, they framed it as a demonstration for national unity and a rejection of fear-mongering by the news media.
But many of the thousands of participants had a more specific political message in mind. And the date of the event, so close to Election Day, was clearly not a coincidence. "Vote Sanity 11.02.10" stickers were distributed throughout the crowd.
Michelle Byers was holding several stickers. "Well, they were technically non-partisan," she said, referring to Stewart and Colbert. "But President Obama and the Democrats are clearly not the fear mongers."
While there were fewer than Stewart's facetious estimate of 10 million attendees, tens of thousands, mostly from the East Coast, but also from as far away as Alaska, converged on the National Mall here. No exact count of attendees is available, but it is clear that the event dwarfed any rally in recent years.
"When I left New York this morning, the newspapers were talking about a Yemen bomb plot," said Shafron Williams, of Jersey City, N.J. "I feel like I took a ‘time out.' I needed this. I'm dancing to the ‘Love Train.'"
Stewart, who embodied "sanity," introduced Yusuf, formerly Cat Stevens, who performed "Peace Train," his 1971 hit song. Colbert, working to "restore fear," interrupted, saying that he wouldn't get on such a train. Then he brought Ozzy Osbourne on to sing "Crazy Train." After a bit of pre-arranged comedic chaos ("I'm not getting on that train!" Stewart yelled at Colbert. "He just said it's going off the rails!"), Osbourne and Yusuf walked off - leaving the stage free for the Ojays, who played "Love Train" uninterrupted.
The atmosphere of the event was far more Lollapalooza than One Nation United, but Stewart delivered a message, first satirically and then seriously.
"This was not a rally to ridicule people of faith, or to look down our noses at people in the heartland, or at activists," Stewart said, "or to say that things are not difficult, because they are. But we live in hard times, not end times."
The Daily Show host took pains to appear non-partisan, assailing "Washington" and the news media in general.
During a "debate" between Stewart and Colbert as to whether sanity or fear should rule, Stewart appeared to win - until Colbert played a montage of fear-inducing media clips, showing everything from bedbugs to terror plots.
"The country's 24 hour political pundit perpetual panic conflictinator [sic] did not cause our problems, but its existence makes solving them that much harder," Stewart said. Taking on the way certain cable television hosts throw hysterical labels around about people they disagree with, he added, "If we amplify everything, we hear nothing. There are terrorists and racists and Stalinists and theocrats, but those are titles that must be earned."
Continuing his superficially bipartisan theme, Stewart said, "We hear every damn day about how fragile our country is, and how it's a shame that we can't work together. But the truth is we do, we work together every damn day. The only place we don't is [in Washington] or on cable TV. But Americans don't live here or on cable TV."
Conservatives had complained, even before the rally, of "liberal bias" in reporting on the event. As a consequence, the New York Times, CBS, NPR and several other big media outlets banned their staff from attending. These media received a "Fearie" award from Colbert. Since no representatives were on hand to receive the award, Colbert said, "I am forced to present this award to someone with more courage, a seven-year-old girl."
Stewart presented awards for reasonability. He gave one to Velma Hart, who challenged President Obama in a town hall meeting on CNBC. Stewart noted that instead of calling him names or demonizing the president, she raised her concerns in a sensible way - through dialogue.
Right-wing newspapers and Fox News portrayed Hart as an African American woman disenchanted with Obama. But she told the crowd on Saturday, "I appreciated his answer, and I appreciate his answer that he's been giving us every day since."
As soon as Stewart and Colbert announced the Sanity/Fear rally in September, it was apparent it had struck a chord among a public fed up with Glenn Beck and far-right demagogy. The event's Facebook page listed more than 200,000 people planning to attend. Buses offered by Arianna Huffington filled up early, as did the discount Megabus and Bolt Bus services. Chinatown low-cost buses were also sold out, but individuals with cars showed up near those bus stops, offering to drive people down if they'd split tolls. Seemingly everyone who showed up was able to fill - or overfill - their car.
"The true measure of the success of any rally is its intellectual coherence - I'm just kidding. Its color and its size," Stewart said, parodying the bickering over numbers after other demonstrations, "and as I look out here today I can say that we have over 10 million people! What makes it even better is the color I see, the variety I see. I can't believe this is happening! It's a perfect demographic sampling of the American people."
A wide variety of entertainers and celebrities appeared, including Sheryl Crow, Kid Rock, Tony Bennett, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and others.
While Stewart and Colbert went out of their way to paint the rally as non-partisan (liberal cable hosts were included in the montage of fear-mongering news media, for example), it was clear that the intended target of the rally's polite disagreement was the extreme right tea party movement and its Glenn Beck-type promoters.
Photo: The Oct. 30 Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, on Washington's National Mall. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)