AGAINST A TORRENT of bodies, even the ones costumed or topless, two Danes stood out.
Staring up at the dome from the steps of the Capitol, they were dressed crisply, decorated in formal military attire. Members of the Royal Danish Army and veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, the two steely-eyed men had come to Washington to run in Sunday's Marines Marathon. That they happened upon a massive political rally was utter chance.
"To see this, a rally for peace, it feels wonderful," said one. The other was somewhat confused.
"The person who brought these people together," he asked, "he is a comedian?"
It was a brisk, beautiful, sunny morning in Washington. My metro stop, second from the end of the Blue Line, filled the train entirely. Stragglers tried to squeeze in, finding nothing but an impenetrable wall of bodies. The doors couldn't close. They had to go. And as we rode the escalator up out of the station, the collective weight became too much. It burped, then broke, dead in its tracks.
Between the station and side streets intersecting the Mall were hot dog vendors, activists, and people handing out all manner of useless crap. There was giddiness in the air, and very few protestors trying to steal it—though they couldn't if they'd tried. Middle-aged women were bouncing like teens as friends gave up hopes of rendezvousing. It was lovely mess.
Before 11 am, the sprawling Mall blocks had been filled, and lines developed between the port-o-potties of people hoping to hop the barricades and push in anyway. Inside I found a kid perched comfortably above the fray, leaning back in the branches of a tall tree. I handed him my camera, and asked for shots of the crowd. They showed a sea of humanity stretching back, beyond what the elevated view could capture. By comparison, and still an hour from launch, the Rally to Restore Sanity made Barack Obama's 2008 Waterfront Park rally in Portland and the Democratic Convention in Denver feel quaint.
The mass was predominantly young, but peppered with a noticeable contingent of grey hairs and baby boomers. And although a majority of DC's population is black, the audience looked more like America at large—a smattering of all types, from those in headscarves to freewheeling afros, surrounded by a whole bunch of white people.
There were a few Halloween costumes and a lot more signs, some politically motivated and some just for fun. In a nod to our comedic hosts, these placards became the forum for a joke-writing contest. There were plays on paranoia and the baiting of divisive crackpots ("God Hates When I Can't Find Cock") riffs on contemporary politics ("I Masturbate to Christine O'Donnell"), plays on the rally's theme of sanity ("I Need a Bigger Sign"), and irreverent in-jokes ("Steve Holt!").
Some, all but oblivious to the message, came for the show, the celebrities, and the parties that would follow. A 20-something shoving his way though the crowd was told by a boomer to "take it easy." The kid lifted his chin, squinted, and looked down his nose. "What the fuck are you gonna do about it, old man?"
Mostly, though, the massive audience, pressed shoulder-to-shoulder for well over three hours, was engaged. There was togetherness and generosity—not only of ideas and helping hands, but also of pot and little bottles of liquor passed between strangers.
"I'm prepared," said a tattooed kid with plugs behind me. He opened a pack of American Spirits to reveal three joints.
It helped, because the pure-entertainment portions of the Rally were wont to drag. The Roots started hot but went long, and were sucked down by John Legend's soggy balladry. The only thing the Mythbusters were good for was parody. When they announced the meeting spot for separated families someone shouted, "Myth!" In such a sprawling venue, the subtleties of Jeff Tweedy and Mavis Staples were all but lost, and Stewart's announcement of Kid Rock sent disgusted sighs rippling through the crowd. Rock's cash-in, faux-redneck bullshit was unwelcome, and his trite lyrics about compassion fell flat.
"I can't stop the war, shelter homeless, feed the poor," Rock sang. It was met with indignance. "Yes you can!" an audience member screamed back. "You're fucking rich!" The emergence of Sheryl Crow alongside Rock was the final straw—the yeller, along with five of his friends, began trudging towards the exit.
There were other mishaps and unfortunate bookings. Some cheeky, lowbrow comedic selections—like the JetBlue steward and a reality star—were wholly undeserving of any mention in such a forum. The protracted lineup appeared, at times, like organizers were trying to give people who traveled great distances—and certainly there were many—their money's worth.
Which is not to say there weren't welcome guests. Jacob Isom, the skateboarder from Texas who yanked a Koran from its would-be burners, deserved his accolades and medal—even more after he immediately tossed it into the crowd. And when Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) was introduced, the reaction was of stunned delight. Yusuf is the anti Kid Rock; he doesn't do liquor commercials or adopt personae for the money. Yusuf's been singing honest songs his entire career, and when the guillotine of John Ashcroft's xen- ophobic American policy dropped, Yusuf stood steadfast, principles intact. As the Rally's musical moments went, his "Peace Train" was the most heartfelt and well received. People were swaying together, almost choking up. That is, until Stephen Colbert cut him off.
Upsetting as it was, Colbert's move was a device to explore a greater political message. And that political thirst, after all, is what brought together this great crowd.
Large trees lined the outer edge of the Capital Mall's grassy expanse. One's branches held a number of teen punks. They had blue hair, wore black clothes with patches, and spent most of the Rally chatting or fucking with their phones. But after all the fluff, when Jon Stewart reemerged to serve up the real political meat, the punk rock kids became transfixed. The entire Mall went silent. This was the moment they'd been hoping and waiting for—The Message. The Beef. The Fucking Mainline. Everything Tea Party-ers wanted from Glenn Beck's rally and didn't get.
As Stewart's voiced echoed down the Mall unobstructed, I felt my lungs tighten, constricted by the collective energy of 250,000 human beings focusing on a single source. I've felt this swirling electricity before, first at candidate Obama's visit to Memorial Coliseum. As much as it is about masses of people in unison, it is about message—positive message. Hope.
Two weeks ago in Portland, President Obama's event failed to generate those swirling natural highs. He remains a compelling presence and fine orator, but one who has, at least for the time being, exhausted his reserves of Hope. On that day at Portland's Convention Center, a far cry from his campaign visits, Obama did what his pre-presidential self decried—he used fear as a motivational tool.
But Democrats don't do fear well. They haven't, perhaps, since Lyndon Johnson, trailing 10 points in the polls of a congressional race in 1948, famously suggested painting his pig-farming opponent as a pig fucker.
"We can't say that, Lyndon," said Johnson's aghast campaign manager. "It's nottrue." "Of course it's not," Johnson replied, "but let's make the bastard deny it."
The device has long since been co-opted by Republicans, one in an ever-deepening playbook of ruthlessness and bile. A significant portion of conservative and Tea Party anger and activism stems from false claims about the health-care bill, as indeed fear and anger are galvanizing. In part, the opportunity to speak out against such surreptitious discourse and shit-talk was the reason for the Rally.
But a substantial part of this year's Democratic platform has employed fear-based tactics as a mid-term election strategy. And in traditional modern Democratic fashion, it's been limp-dicked. Or as Stewart characterized the Democratic message in conversation with Obama last week, "Please baby, gimme one more chance," seeming to suggest little more than that the Other Guys will be worse. True or not, the way modern Democrats wield fear is insipid and uninspiring.
The "Hope" mantle they've jettisoned has been picked up by Stewart. By calling for less shouting—both in the media and by politicians—and pressing for a shared, reasonable, rational approach, the comedian is appealing to the better instincts of man. He suggests that if we all do what we're capable of and compromise, difficult problems are solvable. America can be great. Or that's the line. And it certainly touched those in attendance.
But rationality and compromise, particularly in this age of machine-gun media, are dangerous propositions. They are venerable ideals but, as the last two years have proven, ineffective ones. When one side, competing for America's limited time—and vote—is willing to piss down the throats of their adversaries, asking them to "stay cool" isn't enough. Sometimes you've got to grab some pliers, a blowtorch, and a ball-peen hammer and start pulling teeth.
Make no mistake, it's warming to stand in a crowd of a quarter million and have someone say that we're smart enough to do better. But Americans—by and large—are fucking dumb.
They've proven it before by voting against their own economic interests, and they're certain to do it again. Only in our darkest hours as a nation do we really come together and pay attention, and sacrifice for what's necessary. And right now we're barely aware there's a war going on for its 10th year that we've done little more with than finance with tax cuts. As Stewart put it Saturday, "Most Americans don't live their lives solely as Democrats, Republicans, liberals, or conservatives. Americans live their lives more as people that are just a little bit late for something they have to do." I think we're more like drug addicts, and the only way to clean up is to hit bottom. And though things are rotten, there's still a long ways left to go.
Or maybe not. Maybe Rationality prevails. I sincerely hope so, though I suspect and fear that by the time this hits the newsstand, common sense will have had its heart ripped out once again. It's the smart money. And Stewart's message, however compelling on the Mall, and across the country in satellite rallies, remains insular. Think about it like this: How much of Glenn Beck's rally did you watch? Any more than the clips on The Daily Show?
As Stewart's massive gathering came to a close, the Great Wash fanned out across the Mall, funneling towards the many free Smithsonian Museums and historical landmarks stretching from the Capitol on one end, down nearly two miles to the Lincoln Memorial. In the shadow of the Washington Monument I came across a family of four, visiting from Utah.
Were they here for the Rally, I asked? No. Besides seeing the large crowd, they knew nothing of it.
"Could you tell me what it's about?" the wife wondered.
Later I ran into a pair of gray-haired boomer couples from Chicago. Unlike the family from Utah, they came for the event. Since the Rally's audience was predominantly young, I wondered if they could liken it to any formidable moments in their own formative days.
"What, like Woodstock?" one replied—this, from a man who later said he'd been caught up in the riots of Chicago's 1968 Democratic Convention. That he reached first for an entertainment comparison is telling. Or at least displays the strange gray area that Stewart's Rally occupies. Surely, it is political—simple comedians don't draw 250,000 people to the nation's capital. But in a press conference after the Rally, Stewart and Colbert pushed back against notions that this was anything more than what it was—a chance to "speak from the heart," and put on a good show. There are no plans, goals, or prescriptions beyond it.
In hedging between the political and entertainment worlds, Stewart is able to have his cake and eat it too. He can engage on his own terms without being forced to answer for or speak out on any issues outside his wheelhouse. Those who govern are not so lucky. Politics are corrupting, or so they say. So, too, is celebrity. And here Stewart stands, with one foot in each, doing an admirable job resisting the pratfalls. But is that enough?
The political platform, however rational, is entertainment. Despite their sensationalism, the same could be said for the media outlets Stewart decried so vehemently on the Mall.
The question becomes simple but difficult to answer: Does fashioning politics as more palatable entertainment do more harm than good? Surely we'd all understand the issues and speak clearly to one another if we got our news from newspapers and CSPAN, and held the statements of candidates to Factcheck.org. But who—in this world where everyone is a little bit late for something they have to do—would take the time?
It's these ideas that flummoxed the Danish soldiers I met on the Capitol steps. They weren't sure how or why a comedian could be responsible for such a scene. They were inspired, but at the same time confused by the nebulous nature. Denmark is small, and by comparison lacks America's staggering array of the value, lifestyle, economic, geographic, and philosophical variety that so complicate its politics. What the Danes have figured out—and in the nature of the Rally, what America could take away—is a fine mix between respect and rationality, and when that fails, brutal action.
"We are not like you," said the Lieutenant, speaking of his experiences working with America in the Afghanistan war. He told of Denmark's commitment towards building programs at the bottom of Afghan society, something he said the US lacked.
"We talk to people before we kill them."