WASHINGTON— A huge throng stretched along the National Mall on Saturday for a "sanity" rally blending laughs, activism and a call to civility from two popular hosts of satirical TV news shows, comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
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The crowds were festive, goofy, disillusioned with the state of politics if not the nation, and ready to play nice at a gathering called to counter all the shouting and flying insults of these polarized times. So were the hosts.
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, tens of thousands strong, one by one.
For all the frivolity, there were political undertones, too, pushing back against conservatives ahead of Tuesday's election.
"I hate signs," said one sign. "Have you seen my keys?" said another.
Slogans urged people to "relax." But also: "Righties, don't stomp on my
head," a reference to an incident before a Senate debate in Kentucky at
which a liberal activist was pulled to the ground and stepped on. And,
"I wouldn't care if the president was Muslim."
Organizers insisted the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear wasn't about
politics. Still, supporters and left-leaning advocacy groups hoped it
would rekindle some of the voter enthusiasm for Democrats seen in 2008,
particularly among young adults.
Stewart is popular especially with Democrats and independents, a Pew
Research Center poll found. Colbert of "The Colbert Report" poses as an
ultraconservative, and the stage Saturday was stacked with entertainers
associated with Democratic causes or Obama's 2008 campaign.
The entertainers include two surprise guests from Britain — Yusuf, the
former Cat Stevens, and Ozzy Osbourne, who sang conflicting train-themed
songs, only to be followed by the O'Jays performing their hit "Love
Train." Other performers included John Legend and The Roots, "Law &
Order" actor Sam Waterston, and Don Novello, who years ago played Father
Guido Sarducci on "Saturday Night Live."
Shannon Escobar, 31, of Bangor, Pennsylvania, came with a group of 400
people on buses chartered in New York. A supporter of President Barack
Obama in 2008, she said she's tired of nasty rhetoric from both sides
and disenchanted with lack of progress in Washington.
"I want to see real change — not Obama change," she said. "We need a
clean slate and start over with people really working together."
A regular viewer of Stewart's "The Daily Show," she said she had a dream
that he ran for political office, but got "corrupt and dirty."
"I need him to stay pure," she said, deadpan.
People also carried signs in favor of the United Farmworkers labor
movement and the movement to give the U.S. capital a voting seat in
Congress. Many were college students, but the crowd cut across all age
groups. "Seniors for pot" cried a half-dozen older people.
The rally generated extensive buzz on the Internet, with more than
226,000 people on a Facebook page created for the event saying they
would attend. The liberal Huffington Post was sending a caravan of
10,000 people on 200 buses from New York, while TV talk show host Oprah
Winfrey expressed her support by providing travel expenses to a "Daily
Show" studio audience of about 200 members so that they could attend.
Comedy Central's park permit puts the crowd estimate at 60,000. There
were plans for satellite rallies in cities including Los Angeles,
Chicago, Denver and Honolulu.
Stewart and Colbert encouraged attendees to bring signs with slogans
such as "Real patriots can handle a difference in opinion," ''It could
be worse but let's not make it that way," and "Death to Nobody."
Organizing for America, Obama's political operation based at Democratic
National Committee headquarters, was setting up a "Phone Bank for
Sanity" after the rally to urge people to vote on Tuesday.
Saturday's event mirrors the "Restoring Honor" rally held in August by
Glenn Beck, the Fox News commentator popular among conservatives. Beck,
too, played down his event as a political rally; Stewart has described
his simply as an alternative format for the mock-news humor seen by
millions of Comedy Central viewers each night on "The Daily Show" and
"The Colbert Report."
On his radio show this week, conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh
mocked the Saturday event. He says it will give the tea party movement
and other conservatives a chance to build voter turnout for Tuesday
while Democrats go to Washington to "smoke some doobies" and listen to a
"couple of half-baked comedians."
The rally is promoting charitable causes. Stewart is asking attendees to
help restore the National Mall, which has a $400 million backlog of
deferred maintenance. Colbert is asking people to contribute to Donors
Choose, which raises money for school supplies; proceeds from sales of
rally merchandise also will go to the Yellow Ribbon Fund to help wounded