Today, with one of America’s major parties seeming (to these eyes) almost entirely detached from reality, and the other dragged down by itself, it falls to those who aren’t politicans to plead the case for the rest of us. Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity struck me not merely as a sly dig at Glenn Beck but also as a much-needed tonic to the modern malaise. My brother, as avid a fan as exists of Stewart’s The Daily Show and its pendant, Stephen Colbert’s The Colbert Report, announced his intention to fly in from San Francisco to attend the Rally; I decided to join him.
The experience proved not entirely what I expected — as I’ll explain in a moment. And yet there is something seductive and heartening about looking up and down the Mall and the streets of this nation’s capital, and seeing thousands upon thousands of people who pretty much agree with you. I’m glad I went.
Getting there proved to be the bulk of the problem, and I want also to use this space to castigate the Peter Pan/Greyhound Bus Lines, whose employees somehow booked so many round trips for Saturday between New York and Washington, without once thinking, “Gee, maybe we’d better add a few buses.” When I arrived (early, but not extravagantly so) for my 7 AM bus, the waiting line extended in a writhing, snakelike procession through every available space in the departure area at Port Authority. It was impossible to see everyone, so I can’t offer an exact count, but we were easily 800 to 1000 people, and quite possibly more.
After two and a half hours of waiting, I was piled onto a bus that was scheduled to go only as far as Silver Spring, MD, but that had been pressed into the extra service of a trip to Washington. Thus the trip — already late — would last a full hour longer than that for which I’d signed up.*
By the time we got to Silver Spring, it was 2 PM; the Rally was scheduled to end at 3. A dozen of us heeded the suggestion of Michael, a first-year graduate student at Columbia’s school for public and international affairs, who hoped to bypass the street traffic around the Mall and thus to arrive in time to witness anything of the Rally. So we got off the bus and hotfooted it to the nearest Metro station.
There, of course, we had to wait for the Metro, while the Rally continued apace. (A couple of the kids — all of whom were college or graduate students — had brought iDevices that permitted them to follow the proceedings.) By the time we got to Judiciary Square, it was 2:51, several members of our group already had bailed out, and now I bailed, too. The Metro platform was so mobbed with Rallyers “beating the crowd by leaving early” that I could barely squeeze out of the car. At least I’d be close to the National Gallery, where my brother and I had agreed to meet after the Rally.
This is a long way of explaining how it came to pass that I arrived within view of the stage just in time to hear Jon Stewart wish us goodbye.
So much for my Rally. Thanks, Greyhound.
I talked a bit with the kids from the bus and with a few others whom I met during the afternoon. Was their interest in the Rally primarily politics, primarily entertainment, or both, or neither? The vast majority answered “Both,” but interestingly, women were more likely than men to answer “Politics.” Since the Rally was effectively a reaction to Beck and the Tea Party, I wasn’t surprised, yet it seems clear that the (male-driven) Tea movement’s Mama Grizzly posturing isn’t playing well among younger women voters.
Two young women from my bus, Caroline and Stephanie, were students at Trinity College. Though Caroline had told her mother she was coming to the Rally, Stephanie told her parents she had the flu and was staying in bed all weekend. This lent a gently rebellious air to our trip.
In character, we were overwhelmingly liberal, and signs and T-shirts proclaimed our faith in facts and reason. Thus certain of the loopier Tea Party and/or Republican types (Beck, O’Donnell, Angle, Palin) came in for special scorn, with various of their public statements ridiculed, often humorously. This of course makes us only more “elitist” in the eyes of others, but few of us seemed to mind.
A guy who looked quite a bit like Beck was assigned oversight of the garbage bins near the Gallery. He generously informed us which was for recycling, which for regular trash, and he insisted that, no, Glenn Beck looked like him.
Some of the signs I saw merely repeated the suggestions made by the Stewart/Colbert team on the Rally’s website: “I may disagree with you, but I’m pretty sure you’re not Hitler” is one. Many signs urged us to calm down; adhesive badges exhorted us to “Vote for Sanity.”
But the Rally was an opportunity for the audience to show off its own gifts for comedy. Original messages abounded, such as the sign that said “Duck Season” on one side, “Rabbit Season” on the other. The legalization of marijuana is a very, very popular notion among this crowd, as are gay marriage; the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”; science; secularism; employment; and civility. War is not popular, but the fellow whose sign equated Obama, Bush, and Bin Laden seemed to have missed the point of our gathering.
We were overwhelmingly young, too, but one grownup couple, Bill and Rita, had flown in from Arlington, TX. In a national climate of shrill partisanship and extreme views, “We wanted to help make a statement,” Bill told me. When they arrived, around 8 AM, they found the Mall already crowded with Rallyers. “These kids must have camped out here,” he marvelled. By the time the Rally started, there were kids “hanging from trees and standing on top of the porta-potties.”
Bill and Rita found the show entertaining. “We never heard of the Crows,” he said of one band (of whom I’d never heard, either), “but they were good. And Mavis Staples. And Cat Stevens was here!”**
Indeed, I saw a lot of headscarves among the crowd, and I was impressed that, even at a time when candidates for high office strive to make Islam an object of fear, so many American Muslims would prefer to remain resolutely reasonable — and they’re gravitating toward those who embrace them as neighbors.
The Rally appeared to have been good for Washington’s economy. In the gift shop of the National Gallery, dozens of Rallyers roamed and purchased (and they went upstairs to look at the art, too); at dinnertime, Linc and I had trouble finding a restaurant that wasn’t overflowing with customers. Once we found a table, we were surrounded by folks from the Rally, including two women from Arizona who gleefully shared their favorite slogan of the day: “Palin & Beck in 2012: How did the Mayans know?”
I’ll have to resort to other means to witness the wit and wisdom of Stewart and Colbert, whom I do admire tremendously. I daresay we could do worse than vote for the ticket that so many Rallyers endorsed: “Stewart & Colbert in 2012.”
But after the Rally, as Linc and I strolled the sidewalks of the Capital, I thought not about politics but about our childhood, when the monuments were dream-castles and the Smithsonian a playground to us. We were never closer as brothers than when we were running to the next exhibit, and never more in agreement than when we were shivering in the Washington winter, marveling at some dinosaur or da Vinci or the Star-Spangled Banner. Here we were, decades later, doing much the same.
And I couldn’t help but agree with one of Stewart’s favored slogans: “Things are pretty okay.”
*NOTE: According to my “reserved ticket,” Greyhound was obliged to seat me at the hour indicated. They didn’t do so, of course, and only when I arrived at the gate, hours later, did any employee of the bus line inquire whether I or anyone else had reserved tickets. (Nobody ever asked at all about the “Priority Tickets,” which claim to offer even greater assurance of timely seating.) My advice: save your money, and take Amtrak when you can.)
** Since Cat Stevens — known today as Yusuf Islam — once declared his willingness to assassinate Salman Rushdie, I can only hope that his presence at the Rally means that he’s evolved a bit. Because like the other Rallyers, I support evolution, too.