By Julia Duin
Sunday, December 12, 2010; W22
As a half-moon shines overhead, a crowd of youngish people clump together for warmth like so many penguins. A good many of these folks belong to a youthful generation derided as slackers and scoffers. Yet, it's 5 a.m., and they rose two hours earlier to brave the New York subway to reach this vast parking lot at Citi Field, just south of LaGuardia Airport in Queens.
Clad in hoodies, jeans and woolen scarves, they bounce up and down, trying to keep metabolisms humming as defense against the chilly wind. But no sacrifice is too great for the cause: a massive meeting 209 miles away on the Mall in Washington with the schizophrenic title of "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear." The event stars Comedy Central's Jon Stewart and his sidekick Stephen Colbert, best known for their late-night antics on "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report."
Advance PR has billed the gathering as a rich feast of absurdity, its main purpose seeming to be to mock a previous rally -- also on the Mall -- organized by conservative Fox News pundit Glenn Beck. Liberal Internet diva Arianna Huffington amplified the buzz, announcing that she would fund "as many buses as people to fill them" to get fans from New York. More than 10,000 people, enough to fill 200 buses, enlisted within a few weeks, forcing Huffington to suspend registration on Oct. 24. And so, in the wee hours of Oct. 30, here we are at Citi Field, home to the New York Mets, preparing to shuffle through a primitive security system, present proof of online registration and allow our backpacks to be searched.
The thousands standing here in predawn 42-degree weather aren't wild about this extended wait. Some grumble; others, like Brooklynite Sarah Altshul, 60, are taking a more mature approach. Bundled up in a purple scarf and heavy brown jacket, she is staying upbeat.
"It seemed like this year's Woodstock," she says, adding that she missed the 1969 event.
"I was outraged by the whole Glenn Beck thing and the mob mentality going on there," she says, referring to the Aug. 28 "Restoring Honor" rally at the Lincoln Memorial. "Jon Stewart is a counterpoint to that."
(Previously in The Washington Post Magazine: Tea Party Road Trip to the Glenn Beck rally)
Suddenly, a svelte, familiar-looking woman in a black-and-gray outfit walks by, followed by a cluster of TV lights.
"Arianna, thank you!" people shout. "You rock."
Positioning herself in front of the cameras, the blond-haired new-media mogul says that by helping people get to Washington, she is trying to do something beyond "demonizing Republicans."
Then, one of the cameramen points out that Huffington is standing perfectly in line with a neon sign in the background. It reads "left field."
"It's a left and right crowd," she counters. "It's fantastic that people wanted to get up on a Saturday morning in the cold to make an impact."
Judging from the signs they're carrying -- "Buck Beck" and "Doughy White Guys are not an Oppressed Minority" are a couple -- 99 percent of the people being transported by Huffington are from left field, I decide as I wander up and down the aisle of bus No. 45937. The bus, which pulls away at 6:35 a.m., has lots of room to stow backpacks and signs, and comfortable velveteen seats, upon which many passengers have immediately dozed off. It is stocked with free soft drinks and organic Oikos Greek Yogurt donated by sponsors. "Arianna is Greek, right?" someone jokes.
Last time I was in Queens, I was covering the 2005 Greater New York Billy Graham Crusade about one-quarter mile to the south in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. This crowd is the polar opposite of Graham's devout Christian listeners. Many, I discover during conversations with those awake enough to talk to me, are agnostic or Jewish.
It's a universe far removed from the one I customarily inhabit as a born-again Christian. I didn't attend Beck's rally, and I think its lineup of religious leaders has more to say about evangelicals' desperation to latch onto someone with vision than it does about Beck's leadership. While few of my friends are into conservative luminaries such as Beck or former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, they are likely to be regulars at the annual Jan. 22 march against abortion down Constitution Avenue. A lot of them tithe, put off sex until marriage and home-school their kids. Other than my parents -- who are as liberal as I am conservative -- no one I know stays up until 11 p.m. to watch Jon Stewart.
You might say I'm the antithesis to Bill Donahue, a Left Coast reporter from Oregon whom the Post Magazine assigned to follow a group of Tea Party supporters to the Beck rally. The Magazine then asked me, a former Washington Times religion editor, to do the same with Stewart's young, liberal followers. I'm curious to learn: What do these folks want?
Darned if I ever find out. What I have ended up on is a Magical Mystery Tour of a bus, whose passengers -- all of whom are white, except a handful -- are of a mixed mind as to why they're there. The younger ones want the experience of joining up with a huge frat party on the Mall. The older ones are politically involved and see Stewart's tongue-in-cheek rally as a way to stick it to the Tea Party and support President Obama and the struggling Democrats.
They do share one thing with the Beck fans: They are so frustrated with the two main political parties that they're looking to entertainers to provide leadership, even if it means attending a rally staged by two faux newscasters.
Miriam Winocour, 63, a former administrative assistant at Time magazine who was raised in a "liberal, upper West Side family" with a journalist father and a Socialist mother, gets the irony. "There's such a crossover between news and entertainment now," she says, as the bus swings onto the New Jersey Turnpike. She starts unpacking a small cafeteria's worth of peanut butter sandwiches, bagels and cookies, and asks: "If Jon Stewart is a fake news show, is this a fake demonstration?"
But Amanda Marks, 43, an entertainment writer living in Manhattan, says the farce is part of the appeal. "We are using a comedy rally to point out the absurdity of politics," she says. "I am hard-pressed to think of anything the Democratic establishment could do to get me schlepping to Washington like this."
James Toomey, a thin 16-year-old with chin-length brown hair from Huntington, N.Y., jokes that he's a "big friend of sanity." Thinking he sounds pretty flip, I ask why he is giving up a perfectly good Saturday to be here. His response mirrors what so many other riders are hoping.
"This could definitely do something," he says. "And I want to be part of it."
The true believers on the bus have a long history of involvement in Democratic causes. As we pass Philadelphia, I chat with Leslie Shields, 54, of Oyster Bay, N.Y., who has attended marches on behalf of Planned Parenthood, against the Iraq war and for the quirky antiwar group Code Pink. She's going to show support for Obama. "I feel the need to get galvanized," she says. "It's taking civic responsibility for the kind of situation we're in, and too many Americans won't do that."
An organizational consultant, Shields has not had full-time work in two years, but she's not blaming the president. "I'm unhappy with some of the things he's done, but I still support him," she says. "People are too demanding of the government and neglect their role of citizenry. They don't want the government to interfere, and then they want the government to do it all."
As we cross the Delaware Memorial Bridge, I settle in for a conversation with my seatmate, Robert Woudenberg, 46, a photographer and New York State Department of Transportation employee from Valley Cottage, N.Y. Like Shields, he hopes his presence at the rally will translate into support for the president. "I'm very interested politically," he says. "I volunteer for Democratic campaigns, do phone banks, things like that."
As have many on the bus, he heaps scorn on the Beck rally.
"'Restoring honor'?" he scoffs. "When did we lose honor? They've been tearing Obama to shreds. Is having a Democratic president losing honor?"
The more I hear people express irritation toward Glenn Beck, or what one teen called "scary" and "crazy" Tea Partiers "who don't understand everything," I wonder if these people actually know any conservatives. But I decline to argue with Woudenberg about this, as the conversation soon shifts to his 21-month-old daughter, whom he dotes on. Before she was born, I learn, there was another pregnancy. Doctors told Woudenberg and his wife that the fetus had no heartbeat, and she was advised to abort.
"Why couldn't you have at least allowed your child to live out its short life in the womb?" I ask.
I have strong feelings on this, not just because of my faith but because of a 2009 article I wrote about a Silver Spring organization called Isaiah's Promise, which encourages women with problem pregnancies to bring their babies to term. The women I had interviewed told me that doing so was less traumatic than aborting the babies would have been.
Woudenberg responds with a line I often hear: that if an unborn child has some kind of abnormality, it's best to abort him or her sooner and let the mother get on with her life. He argues that my position is a minority one; I say it's the more compassionate one for the mother, for whom an abortion is an added trauma, and for her helpless child, for whom nine months in the womb will be the only life he or she knows.
Conservatives can rail against abortion all they want, he says, but if Roe v. Wade were struck down, he adds, even conservatives' politics "would change quite a bit."
No matter what the Supreme Court does, I counter, many people of faith will still oppose abortion.
"I wish I could say I believe in God," he says, almost wistfully, "but I don't."
It being the day before Hal-loween, many of the younger attendees are dressed in costumes including Uncle Sam and marijuana plants. By far the cleverest get-up on the bus belongs to a quartet of three young men and one woman from Baruch College in Manhattan whom I'd met on Citi Field. We resume our conversation as the bus nears Baltimore. They seem to fit squarely into the stereotype of Stewart fans: young, ironic hipsters who exercise their wit from a distance and make gentle fun of people others might consider heroes.
After watching video of the recently released Chilean miners -- whose harrowing 69 days underground from early August to mid-October captured the world's attention -- the young men were inspired to spoof them.
They shopped at Home Depot, ending up with bright yellow hard hats, jeans and T-shirts under fluorescent yellow vests, along with various accouterments: flashlights, heavy gloves, Bono-like sunglasses and tape measures dangling from their belts. Their faces are smeared with coal dust. They get laughs and thumbs up from the crowd at Citi Field when they strike poses and break into the shout: "Chi! Chi! Chi! Le! Le! Le!"
Russian-born Danil Rudoy, 21, of Brooklyn, a corporate communications major, is dressed as Miner 21, Yonni Rojas, who was greeted at the mine entrance not by his wife but by his mistress. Rudoy posts a No. 21 on the back of his hard hat and wears a shirt stating, "I spent 69 days in a mine and all I got was this lousy T-shirt."
His sign says, "Is this the line for free health care?"
Dressed as Miner 33, the last one out, Sergey Varlashkin, 20, is an international business major from the Bronx. Born in Uzbekistan, he hopes to become a citizen next year. He remembers the incessant singing of the national anthem every day in school until he emigrated at age 10 but seems to have spent little time since then reflecting on the difference between living in a dictatorship and a democracy. His sign shows "longcat," an elongated white cat that exists as a cybercharacter from the Internet imageboard 4chan.org. What does the cat have to do with Chile or U.S. politics? I ask. Nothing, he informs me. "It's more of an Internet joke than anything else."
Varlashkin is similarly nebulous on his reasons for attending the rally. "I think the government is ridiculous," he says. "They're not doing anything. If they were doing something, we wouldn't be here." What this vague entity in Washington should be doing, he does not say.
American-born Michael Dabrowski, 20, a biology and chemistry major from Queens, grew up in a family of Polish immigrants. Dressed as Miner 1, he waves about a Tolkienesque sign that proclaims "One Sign to Rule Them All," a take-off on "The Lord of the Rings."
"I assumed a lot of people were going to bring signs, and I wanted mine to be better," he says.
"If there's a message, we'll send it," Rudoy jests.
"Whatever that may be," Dabrowski counters.
Dabrowski's girlfriend, Anna Rozenberg, 19, a marketing management major from Brooklyn, accompanies them. Like Rudoy, she has recently become a citizen; unlike him, she has registered to vote, though she is not sure she will. Attending this rally, she says, is a "first step" in getting more involved in politics. Rozenberg moved from Russia to America at age 2, when her Jewish parents decided to flee the rising anti-Semitism there. Now, her dad is a rabid Glenn Beck fan.
"He didn't want me to come to this," she says, "and he doesn't know I'm here. He's worried about communism happening again."
Although our bus gets to RFK Stadium just before noon, it takes an hour for the students, with whom I've decided to tag along, to reach the Mall. Although I zip through the Metro turnstiles with my SmarTrip card, it's a frustrating wait as the others get stuck in long lines at the fare card machines. By 1 p.m., when the main rally starts at Third Street, the quartet is mired in a huge tangle of people three blocks away near Fourth and Independence. We slowly push our way west, finding it impossible to move toward the Mall because of the vast numbers who are trying to do the same thing. We dimly hear the national anthem from the loudspeakers.
"Either my eyes are sweaty, or I'm crying," Rudoy says, one of the few times all day that I get a serious comment from these folks. Someone mentions Chile from the stage, and the "miners" strike a pose.
"This is our minute!" one says.
But it's brief. Everyone is there to make a statement or an anti-statement or a non-statement. It's the perfect postmodern festival: There is no absolute truth. The only meaning to it all is whatever you decide it to be.
Relativists or not, the "miners" at least want a decent experience out of the event. They turn north on Seventh Street and push their way onto the Mall and through the crowd. Jeff Tweedy and Mavis Staples are onstage, but it's impossible to hear them. We squish our way past a Thai food stand, then get stuck next to an earsplitting generator. At this point, we can glimpse, barely, one of the giant video screens.
Is this worth it? I ask.
"Yeah, I guess," Varlashkin responds weakly.
"This is stressful," Rozenberg says.
By 2 p.m., the "miners" are calling it quits.
"Back to the mine! Out of the way!" Varlashkin shouts, jauntily waving his cat sign. The friendly crowd, still nodding or clapping as the miners pass, lets them squeeze through back to Seventh Street, where a growing number of people who likewise cannot hear or see are making their way toward Metro Center and any restaurant along the way.
Still somewhat upbeat, the quartet splits; Rozenberg and Dabrowski head off to visit friends at George Washington University, while Rudoy and Varlashkin walk all the way back to the buses, where most fellow passengers report that they, too, saw very little of the actual rally.
One passenger, I later learned, got close to the action by finding a spot behind the stage, where he could watch celebrities coming and going. Jeff Silberman, 51, a data center solutions architect from San Jose, Calif., was ebullient about the "civility, moderation and fun" he sensed on the Mall.
"We felt compelled to be here, even if we didn't know why or what for," he said of the crowd. "We all had a message, without knowing what it was."
The rally, he said, was "our collective moment of Zen."
Three days after the rally -- and after calming down her father, who found out she had gone to the gathering -- Anna Rozenberg's vote helped Democrat Andrew Cuomo defeat Tea Party candidate Carl Paladino for New York governor. Being in Washington, she said, "got me more excited about politics again."
Dabrowski, her boyfriend, also voted Democratic, "but it didn't seem to do anything," he mourned. The rally felt aimless to him. "I thought it'd serve a political purpose," he said. "But I'm not sure what purpose it served, if anything."
Varlashkin, the non-citizen, was pleased that the rally got people talking and didn't seem at all perturbed by the dissonance of the experience.
"It's basic nihilism," he told me. "A joke within a joke. The whole situation was a joke. Us being there was the joke.
"Or maybe," he said, "a satire."
Julia Duin, whose most recent book is "Days of Fire and Glory," is a religion writer based in Maryland. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.