The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear as It Unfolded
Live from The New Moderate’s headquarters in Philadelphia… I’m watching the heavily hyped Jon Stewart-Stephen Colbert rally in Washington, DC — from the comfort of my den. (I hate large crowds, and besides, all the morning trains to Washington were sold out.)
The eminent comedian-pundits, beloved by legions of white urban left-leaning (but safely establishment) yuppies, have promised us a celebration of sanity in American politics. Let’s see if they deliver.
12 noon: The rally begins and the Roots take the stage. I saw the Roots when Obama staged his own rally in Philadelphia. They’re proud and loud.
12:32 p.m. — Good grief: half an hour of music and shouting by the Roots, with no end in sight. This is supposed to be a political rally, is it not? Where’s the beef?
12:40 — The Roots are done. Praise the Lord and start the actual rally.
12:43 — Now the Mythbusters, two professional cut-ups from San Francisco, are encouraging the audience to make a stadium-style “wave,” which ripples from the bandstand at the Capitol end of the Mall all the way back to the Washington Monument. Pretty impressive crowd. (If anyone dropped a bomb on this crowd, Starbucks would be out of business.) Now they just made a second wave. OK, we get the idea.
12:54 — Now they’ve told the crowd to jump in unison… creating a “groundswell,” get it?
12:56 — Jon Stewart, the man himself, takes the stage. He welcomes the crowd and basks in the adulation. He probably never dreamed he’d be a culture hero when he was growing up in Edison, New Jersey.
12:58 — Here comes the National Anthem. As is customary at public events, the song becomes a kind of soul ballad, with about three times the number of syllables as the composer originally intended.
1:00 — Jon Stewart addresses the crowd. “A perfect demographic sampling of the American people,” he calls it. “73 percent white, 14 percent black, and the rest of you ‘other,'” as he estimates it. Then, just to be sure, he asks a reporter on the field to quiz a few attendees about their racial/ethnic/gender composition. The first person identifies himself as half white, half Mexican. The second is a young white female. The third tells us she’s from Taiwan. Yep, we’re diverse, all right. Blacks? Oh, remember the Roots?
1:05 — A shirtless Stephen Colbert, ironic mastermind of the “fear” portion of the rally, appears on the big screen from his underground fear bunker beneath the stage. Now he surfaces, Chilean miner-style, in a narrow cage-elevator. He pretends to release a swarm of “bees” that can smell fear.
1:12 — Stewart introduces Father Guido Sarducci, the whimsically befuddled Italian priest from the glory days of “Saturday Night Live.” I confess I would have paid to see him in person. He asks God for a sign to let us know which is the “right” religion. He rattles off a number of faiths: Methodist, Episcopal, Roman Catholic, all other Christians, Judaism and Islam (“You don’t eat pork, they don’t eat pork,” he reasons… “let’s build on that.”)… Buddhism, Rastafarianism, etc., etc. God doesn’t provide a sign, but the good priest thanks Him anyway.
1:20 — Colbert introduces “the most reasonable-seeming man in America,” actor Sam Waterston, to read a poem that he (Colbert) has prepared for the occasion: “Can You Be Sure?” — an earnest meditation on all that worries us (e.g., getting trapped in a full Port-a-Potty).
1:25 — Stewart presents the Muslim singer formerly known as Cat Stevens, who says “Peace” (the way they used to say it at Woodstock) and sings “The Peace Train.” Colbert interrupts him in mid-song, protesting that he will NOT get on that train. Good grief, that’s not Ozzy Osbourne climbing onto the stage, is it? Indeed it is. Dueling songs: The Peace Train vs. the satanic chords of Black Sabbath. [A friend has since informed me that the song was “Crazy Train.”] Is there any hope for a compromise? Yes! The O’Jays mount the platform and sing “The Love Train.” (Stewart assures Colbert that love can also bring STDs and heartbreak, which convinces the pseudo-conservative hatemonger.)
1:37 — Stewart presents a “highlights” reel of insane moments in contemporary American culture, featuring — well, only two highlights (including the flight attendant who memorably flipped out and exited the plane). Too bad; I was looking forward to this part of the show.
1:40 — A couple of brief and really pointless “people in the crowd” interviews.
1:43 — Stewart presents the first “Medal of Reasonableness” award to Armando Galarraga, the young pitcher who was famously robbed of a perfect game by an umpire’s bad call and displayed memorably good sportsmanship in the aftermath. Not to be outdone, Colbert awards the first “Medal of Fear” to media giants CBS, NBC, AP and NPR — all of which prohibited their employees from attending the rally.
1:47 — More music: Jeff Tweedy and Mavis Staples, both unknown to me but undoubtedly appreciated by the Jon Stewart demographic.
1:52 — The second Medal of Reasonableness is awarded to Velma Hart, the African American woman who challenged President Obama passionately but politely at a town hall meeting. The second Medal of Fear goes to Anderson Cooper’s “tight black t-shirt” — because we know that whenever we see the CNN journalist wearing it, we’re suffering from a major natural disaster.
1:55 — A spoof commercial from P.K. Winsome, who hawks spurious rally souvenirs. Example: the utilitarian Port-a-Poncho, designed for people at rallies without sufficient toilet facilities. Just hide a bottle under the roomy outerwear and go for it. As Winsome says, “it puts the ‘P’ back in poncho.”
1:58 — Stewart and Colbert bicker over their choice of American flag outfits and proceed to sing about the greatness of America, with a few impishly funny lines about PC and gayness. Stewart will never, EVER get a recording contract. In fact, the two of them make such a godawful sound together that I feel obligated to delete this portion of the program from my brain’s internal memory files.
2:06 — More medals of reasonableness and fear. Mick Foley promises to enforce reason by kicking butt; Facebook mogul Mark Zuckerberg (not present) wins the fear medal for justifying our most paranoid suspicions about Big Brother. Someone-or-other (hey, it’s not easy to listen and write at the same time) nabs the final reasonableness medal for (don’t quote me on this) snatching a something-or-other from a Muslim-basher.
2:12 — Musical interlude featuring Sheryl Crow and Kid Rock. I grab a snack.
2:23 — Stewart delivers the keynote address: “What is reason?” Colbert insists on offering a counterpoint to every point Stewart intends to make; he wishes to be “empodiumed.” Colbert is funny enough, but his perpetual irony is starting to wear a little thin. Stewart: “Keeping you scared is exactly what they want.” Colbert: “Who is they? Your lack of proper nouns distresses me.” Stewart posits that most of our fears are like deadly korbamite: nonexistent.
“What about Muslims?” asks Colbert. Stewart dutifully points out that there are 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, only a few of whom have attacked us. Then he introduces Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — a “good” Muslim admired even by Colbert, who expresses a wistful desire to “hang out” with the former basketball great.
How about robots then, Colbert wonders. Shouldn’t we fear them? Cute little R2D2 of “Star Wars” fame waddles onto the platform on behalf of “good robots.” Now Colbert’s giant doppelganger, the dreaded “Fearzilla,” arrives onstage — along with a reel of fearmongering TV news reports. Oh no! — fear seems to be gaining the upper hand over reason. Now the excerpts veer from illness, murder and accidents into politics.
Obnoxious pundits sound off from both the fashionable left and the much-maligned right. Dozens of fearmongering clips pummel us with extremism in all its sickening incarnations. THIS is the real deal: a perfect summary of the insane verbiage emanating from the fringes of our political spectrum. Stewart claims he can simply change the channel to avoid such nonsense. But alas, Colbert insists, TV remotes are crawling with unsavory microorganisms. Stewart is finished, he gloats.
Now (believe it or not) a British actor dressed as Peter Pan arrives onstage, imploring everyone to clap and chant for Jon Stewart. The uproar revives him, while Colbert starts to “melt,” doing his best screeching impression of the Wicked Witch of the West. Stewart (personifying reasonable liberal sanity) is triumphant; Colbert (the embodiment of fringe conservatism) is dead.
All right, they should have offed a left-wing extremist, too — for the sake of balance — but who’s complaining?
2:47 — Stewart offers his concluding remarks. He’s earnest now, even statesmanlike. He hopes he offered a clarion call for action (or “action,” as ironists would view it). He observes pointedly that their intention wasn’t to mock religion or look down their noses at the heartland. “What exactly was this?,” he asks about the rally. I’d like to know, too.
Stewart answers by making a stirring appeal to our common humanity. He begins to soar. “We live now in hard times, not end times. We can have animus and not be enemies… But unfortunately one of our main tools in delineating the two broke.” He’s referring to the press, and particularly the posturing pundits of our extremist media outlets.
“If we amplify everything, we hear nothing,” Stewart quips in reference to the overheated rhetoric that currently dominates cable TV and talk radio. He notes (perceptively, I think) that we have to distinguish between actual bigots and fundamentally decent victims of PC, like Juan Williams and Rick Sanchez. Our inability to identify our real enemies “makes us less safe, not more.” The media have essentially offered us a bewildering array of funhouse mirror distortions — so how do we know when we’re looking at the true reflection?
Stewart grows more impassioned. (I start thinking of Charlie Chaplin’s eloquent valedictory speech in “The Great Dictator.”) He observes that our common humanity trumps our political and cultural differences: “The truth is we work together to get things done every damn day.” The only places we don’t seem to work together, he notes, are the worlds of Washington, DC, and cable TV.
In the real world, by contrast, people cooperate… they do their jobs: “the little reasonable compromises we all make.” (Great phrase.)
Now, on the big screen, we see a bird’s-eye view of cars moving past us at the entrance to a tunnel. As Stewart tells it, the cars are filled with individuals of every conceivable philosophy — people whose beliefs are often in opposition to those of their neighbors. Yet on the road they cooperate: they yield, they merge, they move together through the tunnel. If we want to get out of the darkness and into the light, Stewart concludes, we have to work together… “even if the light at the end of the tunnel is… just New Jersey.”
2:55 — Stewart thanks the audience for its sanity, then invites a special guest onstage to sing “America the Beautiful”: octogenarian crooner Tony Bennett, whose once-silky voice, now grown a little raspy with age, has lost none of its power to stir the emotions. If anything, the fragility of the vessel renders the song all the more moving. Finally, the entire cast mounts the stage… selected singers break out in song… the rally is done.
So… did Jon Stewart, that yuppie idol, that shining exemplar of self-congratulatory urban-hip edginess and orthodox establishment liberalism, succeed in restoring “sanity” to the American political scene? I have to give him credit for trying. If much of the three-hour rally seemed silly, inconsequential or merely facetious, Stewart’s concluding remarks salvaged it and drove home the essential point of the occasion: we might have different views, but we don’t have to wring each other’s necks because of those differences. In the end, we’re all just trying to make it through that tunnel. Sane thoughts from a comic sage and (can we hope?) a born-again moderate.