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Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert might actually bring out the real moderates

By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 21, 2010; B01

For almost every monumental cause pressed by thousands of souls protesting at our national Mall -- jobs, voting rights, equal rights, peace, citizenship, falun gong -- there has been a responding sneer.

But if enough cynics and scoffers descend on Washington next month, we'll see something new in the nation's capital: a prank of epic proportions.

Last week Jon Stewart, the host of The Daily Show, announced that he will hold the Rally to Restore Sanity, a satirical response to Glenn Beck's teary August demonstration to "restore America."

That same day, Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report says he's going to counter with the "March to Keep Fear Alive," mocking the Al Sharpton march that countered Beck's.

In one sense, there's nothing new about lampooning protesters.

In 1894, the brigades of unemployed men who marched from Ohio to Washington to demand work, known as Coxey's Army, were written off as "performers" and "cranks."

After women marched on Washington in 1913 for the right to vote, senators lamented that making a pilgrimage could become a habit for the disenfranchised.

And during the protests against the Vietnam War, even cartoonist Gary Trudeau couldn't resist poking fun at the peace marchers, caricaturing them in "Doonesbury" as hippies with little more to say than "Hi Mom" once they got Lincoln's feet.

"There has always been some sort of mockery," said Lucy Barber, author of Marching on Washington: The Forging of an American Political Tradition, and an expert of the history of political marches on Washington.

But a mockery on a grand scale, a thousands-person-strong lampoon of Americans on the hallowed ground around the Washington Monument?

Unheard of, Barber said.

So if thousands of people actually show up for the rally making fun of a rally on the national Mall on October 30, it could be one, giant, historic snicker.

Or will it?

According to National Park Service spokesman Bill Line, Comedy Central and two public relations firms have applied to hold an event on the Mall that day, estimating they'll get about 25,000 people. They might be able to muster more: This season, The Daily Show has about 1.8 million viewers, and the Colbert Report 1.2 million, according to Comedy Central.

The permit for the event has not been finalized yet, Line said. But so far, it looks as though Stewart and Colbert really mean to do it. Carpool groups, bus charters and meet-ups are already ablaze on Facebook's Rally to Restore Sanity group.

Even the politician that some folks are petitioning to come speak at the rally is a joke: the West Wing's fictional Josiah Bartlett.

But if they get 25,000 or even Stewart's aspired "Million Moderate March," something tells me that this isn't going to make history as a stunt.

Yes, there will be the 20-somethings there, slouching a brand of vintage T-shirt millennial irony, ending all their slogans with a question mark. Totally in on the joke.

But then, there might be the rest of us:

The ones with an SUV and a hybrid in the garage; a meatless dinner on the table and leather shoes on the feet; loving fiscal responsibility but totally into equal rights. The hipster parents rolling in their Swagger Wagon minivan. Practical and realistic, but chill and not righteous.

More middle of the road, more moderate and more mainstream.

In the Washington area, a lot of us fall into this category. And when we turn on the television or read the blogs -- especially the ALL CAPS comments -- we're not seeing ourselves.

We see perennially tanned and coiffed women from out of town, spangled in red-white-and-blue sequins, gathering on our nation's Mall to "restore" an America no one is really sure ever existed.

Or we see the protesters in gas masks and distressed Mad Max costumes, beating drums, not showering, burning incense and unsure what, exactly, the International Monetary Fund does. But it's seriously evil, dude.

We watch as our nation's front lawn, airwaves and frequencies become the showcase and playground for extremists.

And we're fed up. Not all of us want to burn the Koran or trample the honor of those killed on Sept. 11. We get that our politicians aren't saints but don't believe all of them are crooks. We don't believe that political and moral beliefs only come in pre-packaged sets. And we understand that everyone who doesn't think like us isn't automatically suspect.

On his show, Stewart suggested the perfect sign to bring to the protest: "I am not afraid of Muslims/Tea Partiers/Socialists/Immigrants/Gun Owners/Gays . . . but I am scared of Spiders."

So, at long last, someone is proposing that the millions of people who are constantly befuddled, offended and often defined by America's vocal fringes get a chance to be heard.

Maybe it won't make history as the biggest goof pulled off on the Mall because too many folks will take sanity seriously.

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