WASHINGTON — Three days before hotly contested national elections, a pair of comedians drew tens of thousands to the National Mall on Saturday with a blend of jokes and music meant to counter some of the anger and fear they see in the country.
Hosted by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert of the Comedy Central network, the event was called the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, with barbs pointed at popular culture, politicians and especially cable TV news - all meant to coax Americans back to a more civil way of disagreeing.
"This is not...to suggest that times are not difficult and that we have nothing to fear. They are and we do," Stewart said as he turned serious in his closing remarks. "But we live now in hard times, not end times. We can have animus and not be enemies."
He lambasted the cable TV news mentality that amplifies outrageous statements, stokes fear and seeks out confrontation, singling out the left-wing media for equating Tea Partiers with racists and the right-wing media for "the inability to distinguish terrorists from Muslims."
"The press can hold its magnifying class up to our problems," he said. "Or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire...The press is our immune system. If they overreact to everything we get sicker."
The message struck a chord with the large throng of people; the National Park Service no longer provides official estimates of crowds, but the National Mall was densely packed with many tens of thousands of people.
"It's the first time a message like this has resonated with me," said Jonathan Dugan, 37, a product engineer who flew from San Francisco to stand on the mall on a sunny fall afternoon. "We need to get people to talk to each other in a meaningful way."
Philip Salvador, 20, yearned for a day when Americans were unified against a foreign enemy, rather then divided in often bitter opposition to one another. "We need the Soviet Bloc back," said the college student from Washington D.C. "It's a better way to keep fear alive."
The rally took on a festive air, with many wearing costumes and carrying irreverent signs. Among the signs: "Give please a chance," "Stir Peanut Butter, Not Anger" and "Does this sign make my butt look big?"
The O'Jays sang their '70s hit, "Love Train." Actor Sam Waterston read a satiric poem about a man who refused to be scared, who would not share "the panic over Hispanics," and ended up killed by a bear.
Other entertainers included Sheryl Crow, Ozzy Osbourne, the Roots, and actor Don Novello portraying Father Guido Sarducci, a character from Saturday Night Live in the 1970s and 1980s.
With its blend of music and jokes, the rally appeared to tap into a growing trend in which entertainment and popular culture blend with politics, particularly for younger Americans.
One out of 10 Americans now get their latest headlines straight from Stewart's Daily Show, according to a summer poll by the non-partisan Pew Research Center.
While there was no official crowd estimate, Stewart mocked the tendency of Washington rallies to claim huge audiences. "We have over 10 million people," he said to laughs.
No one was safe from Stewart's barbs, with video clips of anchors from Fox News as well as CNN, with shouting women on a Real Housewives program, and with Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., yelling, "You Lie" during President Barack Obama's health-care speech to Congress in September 2009, and Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., saying that Republicans want the elderly to "die quickly."
If the stage was politically neutral, members of the audience leaned left - with Sarah Palin and Delaware Republican Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell top targets.
Mark Foley, 44, an insurance worker from Hartford, Conn., held up a sign with a picture of Palin and the words, "keep fear alive."
"Some folks hoping for President Palin are hoping to keep fear alive," Foley said. "But so are people against her because it helps their cause."
"Look at Christine O'Donnell," said William Cutter, 50, an advertising executive from Washington. "She has come to represent the joke that is this election. She's abundantly unqualified. Jon Stewart has hit a nerve with the American public. No one speaks to the middle."
Liberal groups such as NARAL Pro-Choice America worked to tap the crowd for support. President Barack Obama's political operation, Organizing for America, held a "Phone Bank to Restore Sanity" afterward to try to drum up support in Tuesday's elections.
The crowd was a mix of all ages, and included lots of people over 50 who vividly remembered when the same Mall was filled with people protesting the Vietnam War in the 1960s or urging a nuclear freeze in the 1980s.
Most claimed that the quest for civility, not partisan advantage, ruled the day.
"I'm really concerned that we're not agreeing on anything," said Jean Mathisen, 63, who runs a seniors fraud-prevention program in Seattle.
Reminded that the country was bitterly divided over Vietnam and civil rights during her youth, she said, "I felt that back then, at least a lot of people wanted to work together."
Carol Schutz, 65, a St. Louis activist, seconded that thought. "I'm really fed up with people fighting each other instead of trying to accomplish something," she said.
The over-50 crowd came from all over. Ken Russell, 57, and three friends got up at 4 a.m. and drove to the rally from Bergen County, New Jersey, near New York City.
Mike Freebery, 53, a Wilmington, Del., lawyer and his wife, Donna, a legal assistant, offered a bipartisan spoof of the Delaware U.S. Senate candidates. Mike came as a bearded Marxist, a takeoff on Delaware Democrat Chris Coons' brief college-age dalliance with Marxism, and his wife was dressed as a witch, a reference to Republican Christine O'Donnell's youthful encounter with witchcraft.
The point, they said, was that neither event should be discussed so much. "People take this kind of politics so seriously. It's ridiculous," said Mike Freebery.
The younger crowd tended to be somewhat flashier — people came dressed as bananas, one woman's body was covered in strategic places with only police tape and Brian Taubeneck, 20, of Salem, Mass., was dressed as a big, white round birth control pill. His cause: Trying to get the government to give women free birth control.
Katie Blackman, 26, a Washington, D.C. animal welfare worker, held a sign saying, "We may disagree, but I'm pretty sure you're not Hitler."
Judith Sanders, 57, a Fredericksburg, Va., book seller, had a sign demanding "No more unqualified candidates. Show us your grades in U.S. government."
Lilnda McTiernan, 40, a Highland, N.Y. teacher, was particularly appalled at the incident earlier this week where supporters of Kentucky Republican candidate Rand Paul stomped a liberal activist to the ground.
"That was terrible," she said. "I don't think there's any reason for physical violence."
(Julia O'Malley of the Anchorage Daily News contributed)
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