By Jason Horowitz, Monica Hesse and Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 31, 2010; 1:08 AM
Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, the founding fathers of fake news, drew throngs of exuberant supporters to Washington on Saturday for a joint rally that crowded streets, taxed the transit system and flooded the Mall.
With midterm elections looming and Democrats bracing for a historic thumping, the two comedians reined in their three-hour show to nonpartisan bits, musical entertainment and gentle ribbing of the purported enemies of incivility. The denizens of the Capitol, visible behind the stage, escaped their usual excoriation.
But at the rally's conclusion, Stewart changed his tone and his outfit. Having swapped a black T-shirt and blazer for a suit and tie, the comedian argued that the rally's target was the caustic level of discourse in Washington, and its nasty echoes on cable television's 24-hour news cycle. Stewart said that noisy debate obscured a reality that he perceived: that everyone throughout the country had found a way to work together.
"The only place we don't is here or on cable TV," said Stewart, putting much of the blame on Washington. In earnest terms that bordered on political rhetoric, he orated, "If we amplify everything, we hear nothing."
Stewart and Colbert built their stage on the opposite end of the Mall from the Lincoln Memorial steps, where conservative commentator Glenn Beck led a similarly vast and homogenous crowd two months ago. That rally, with its religious theme of "Restoring Honor," had conservative political undertones and prompted Saturday's satiric response.
The two rallies represented two distinct television audiences and self-identifying political constituencies.
"This is my comedy channel," read a sign emblazoned with the Fox News logo, hoisted by Steven Crawford of York, Pa. The other side of the sign, illustrated with a Comedy Central logo, read: "This is my news channel."
Democratic and Republican leaders argued that the comedic rally either boosted reserves of Democratic enthusiasm, or exhausted it by drawing potential door-knockers away from battleground states, all for some laughs on the Mall.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who is tasked with preserving the House Democratic majority, expressed optimism that the rally "boosts energy among younger voters," adding that "anything that boosts participation among young voters is a good thing generally, and given how they largely voted in 2008, good for Democrats."
Young voters have increasingly turned to Comedy Central's "Daily Show" and "Colbert Report" for political news, but in the days before the rally, observers of the political-media complex sought the larger goal of this unusual gathering: Would visiting progressives of all ages actually take political marching orders from comedians?
The question turned out to be moot. In their closing remarks, neither Colbert nor Stewart was explicit in his demands. "Your presence is what I wanted," Stewart stated simply.
Showing up wasn't simple, in a weekend that was packed with activities related to Howard University's homecoming, the Marine Corps Marathon and Halloween. Many rally-goers encountered severe transportation delays. Metro's packed trains could not accommodate new passengers at stops approaching downtown. Red, Green, Orange and Yellow line trains all seemed at full capacity at 11:15 a.m. Rail riders arriving at stations at the end of Metro lines in Maryland and Virginia were confronted with unusually long lines.
Those who did get to the Mall found large portions closed off by metal fencing, leading to frustration at many usual entry points. Along one stretch, between Third and Fourth streets NW, dozens of people scaled fences and portable toilets to get a better stage view.
Authorities would not estimate the crowd size, though the National Park Service decided to open an extra section of the Mall that was not included on the initial 60,000-person rally permit, according to Bill Line, spokesman for the Park Service. By 2 p.m., Metro ridership had already reached 330,000 people, comparable to an entire day's tally for a usual Saturday, according to Metro spokeswoman Angela Gates.
The rally began as a variety show of shtick and song. The two Comedy Central anchors arrived onstage Saturday afternoon to present bits that pitted Stewart's wry rationalism against Colbert's warped right-wing bravado.
Stewart took the stage first and immediately needled the media metrics of the rally's success, saying it would be judged by its "size and color." In a reference to some exaggerated estimates of attendance at Beck's rally, he said, "I can see we have over 10 million people." As for the diversity of the crowd - the lack of which was the source of much criticism of Beck's event - Stewart joked that it was absurd to read any motives of racism in a crowd's demographics. But despite "Daily Show" correspondents dispatched in the crowd to cheekily interview an ethnically diverse sample of rally-goers, the crowd appeared overwhelmingly white.
"It's very white," said Tahir Messam, a 25-year-old computer expert from Brooklyn, who is African American and came with Pakistani and Chinese friends. "But most of America is white."
Colbert appeared in a red, white and blue jumpsuit in the style of Evel Knievel, bellowing that he expected the gathered "minions" to do his "bidding."
On stage, the TV personalities welcomed cross-genre musical acts that sang in harmony - Kid Rock with Sheryl Crow, Jeff Tweedy and Mavis Staples - or in mock discord, as when mellow folkie Yusuf Islam (formerly known as Cat Stevens) had an interruptive session with metalhead Ozzy Osbourne. Stewart bestowed "medals of reasonableness." The fake cleric Guido Sarducci, played by Don Novello, gave a benediction.
"I find it incredibly ironic," says Jim Neimeier, who drove to Washington from Wisconsin for the event, "that I had to come to a rally sponsored by a comedian to get at the truth."
"This is the most American thing I've ever done!" a young man screamed into a plastic megaphone, handed out by Comedy Central.
The event proved a mass demonstration of noncommittal cleverness, quirk and irony. Through signage, some rally-goers competed to be the most topical ("One man's socialism is another man's uninformed buzzword"), the most off-topical ("I love pineapples") and the most meta ("I am holding a sign").
Many Mall visitors toted signs with arch witticisms such as those identifying the carrier as a member of the "Decaf Party," or warning people "Don't Tread on Snakes," instead of "Don't Tread on Me." Plenty of gear from Obama's inauguration was exhumed from closets and worn again, and many posters borrowed Shepard Fairey's iconic "Hope" design from 2008 - but the visage staring out was of Stewart, not Obama.
It wasn't a singular, coherent movement on display as much as a rollicking expanse of nano-movements. Recycling enthusiasts mingled with D.C. voting rights advocates, who bumped shoulders with fusion-power activists who stepped on the heels of 9/11 truthers. One sign implored, "Vote Lawyers Out," and another insisted, "Vote Popped Collars Out." Some in the crowd wanted the troops to come home; others wanted the troops to be able to gay-marry.
And then there were the signs about signs, like one held by visiting New Yorker Beth Seltzer: "Americans for . . . oh look! A puppy!"
"There's so many people out there who are easily distracted," said the 39-year-old doctor. "And there are people who are yelling and screaming and protesting and they don't even know what they're talking about."
"I do vote," says Teddi Fishman, 46, the director of the Center for Academic Integrity in Clemson, S.C. "But more than entertainment or politics, I just think this is a release for everyone. We've had so much tension."
This is why Fishman has come to the rally dressed as the Flying Spaghetti Monster, with plush tentacles encircling her body. "I want to be around people who believe in civil discourse, that you can disagree" respectfully, she said.
A man walked by and asked if he could take a picture. "Yes," she said. "And would you like to touch my noodly appendage?"
In the last hour of the rally, a group of friends who had traveled from Oregon and the Carolinas said that the afternoon fulfilled every expectation they had for the day. "It was just a lot of people getting along," say Susannah Elder, 40, a massage therapist.
As far as they traveled and as close as they got, not everyone who came for Stewart and Colbert got to hear Stewart and Colbert. A few women from New Orleans sat by the steps of the National Museum of Natural History, well out of view and earshot of the stage. They'd driven 17 hours in a Pontiac for the rally. "Couldn't even hear it," said Isabelle Whitman, 33, as droves abandoned the Mall before the program had concluded.
"We'll watch it later, on TV," assured her friend Erin Landry, 27. At a news conference after the rally, reporters asked Stewart what message he had sent to his constituency.
"We don't have a constituency," he insisted.
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Staff writers Paul Farhi, David Montgomery, Lisa de Moraes and Robert Thomson contributed to this report.