For liberal groups, "Daily Show" rally on Mall, not just for laughs

By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 24, 2010; 8:00 AM

Jon Stewart has tried to paint the "million moderate march" he will hold on the Mall this Saturday as a live-action version of his comedy show, a satirical take on political demonstrations.

But some liberal groups are doing their best to adopt the rally as their own. Democratic clubs from colleges across the country are sending buses to the event, offering a seat in exchange for a few hours of volunteer time. President Obama, who seemed to talk up the rally at an event last month, is expected to appear on Stewart's "The Daily Show" just a few days before.

And when the Huffington Post's Arianna Huffington announced on the show that she would be offering free transportation to thousands of takers from New York City, she tried to cast herself and Stewart as collaborators in the progressive movement. "You work on the message," she told him. "I'll work on the logistics."

It was, of course, inevitable that a politically tinged event on the Mall three days before the midterm elections would turn, well, political. In a year when conservatives have been more enthusiastic, liberals were quick to view the rally as a call to arms - even if it is inspired by a man who has lately been skewering the Obama administration and who bluntly says he feels no allegiance to their political agenda.

The truth is, no one is quite sure what to expect on Saturday, despite the almost nightly plugs by Stewart and a fellow "Comedy Central" host, Stephen Colbert. (Colbert, whose comedic persona is that of a blowhard conservative talk show host, had planned his March to Keep Fear Alive as a counter-demonstration to Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity. The combined rally is now officially called, "The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.")

Organizers have been tight-lipped about the schedule and any special guests, and groups that have reached out in hopes of sharing the stage say they have received no response.

Still, groups ranging from PETA to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws are preparing props and making snarky signs in preparation for the event, and more than 200,000 people have said on Facebook that they will attend.

A question of timing

Many conservatives have watched smugly as liberal activists have become caught up in a gathering that will probably resemble a circus more than it does a serious political event and that is taking place on a prime day for campaign volunteers to help get out the vote.

Brendan Steinhauser, spokesman for the "tea party"-affiliated Freedomworks, is a fan of Stewart's show and recently appeared on "the Colbert Report," but he said he will be in West Virginia on the day of the rally, knocking on doors for Senate candidate John Raese (R).

"I'd rather have as many liberals in D.C. that weekend as possible, because I don't want them out doing the phone calls and get-out-the-vote," Steinhauser said.

Most large, mainstream groups affiliated with the Democratic party, such as unions and Organizing for America, say that they do not plan to have any organized presence at the rally and that they are primarily focused on their get-out-the-vote efforts.

But they view it as a companion effort that could bolster their cause, especially among the young people who are Stewart's core audience and who were integral to the party's 2008 successes.

"This is basically the anti-tea party rally. It's saying, These people are absolutely crazy and we can't have them in the government," said Emma Ellman-Golan, president of the Democratic club at the University of Pennsylvania. The group is offering bus rides from Philadelphia to the rally for $15 apiece, but is providing $5 discounts to anyone who signs up to volunteer for Democratic campaigns in the state on Sunday.

Democratic candidates themselves have said little about the event. But at a roundtable in Richmond last month, Obama said he was amused by the idea of Stewart's rally, adding that it was "really important" for people who expect common sense and courtesy in their daily interactions to have a rally where their voices can be heard.

To brink of seriousness

Stewart is an acknowledged liberal, but he has said that his first allegiance is to comedy. He has said emphatically in interviews that the rally is not a political event, but rather a comedy show for those everyday Americans who are either too busy with their lives or too sensible to get overheated about politics. However, as he does with many of his jokes, he is taking this one to the very brink of seriousness.

When announcing the rally on his show last month, he said it was aimed at the "70 to 80 percent of Americans" who do not believe that "Obama is a secret Muslim planning a socialist takeover of America so he can force his radical black liberation Christianity down our throats. Or that Bush let 9/11 happen to help pad Dick Cheney's Halliburton stock portfolio."

On public radio's Fresh Air last month, Stewart sought to play down suggestions that the event was planned as a take-down of the tea party movement and of Fox personality Glenn Beck, who in August held his Restoring Honor rally on the Mall.

Stewart drew a sharp contrast between his goal and that of liberal groups, which at the time were worried that his event could overshadow the One Nation Working Together rally they held early this month.

"I have no obligation to the Democrats or progressives or unions," he told host Terry Gross. "We're not warriors in their cause, and if they're upset, they should have thought of that the last couple of years before they lost the momentum that they gained."

His efforts to shape expectations of the rally have been overshadowed by figures such as Huffington and Oprah Winfrey, an Obama ally who is also paying for hundreds of people to attend the rally. And many tea party activists remain convinced that they will be the butt of most of Stewart's jokes.

"Jon Stewart always tries to make it seem like he rises above it all, and that's not the case," said Jamie Radtke, a leading tea party organizer in Virginia. "He certainly has a point of view that's fairly strident."

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