Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert had their big day in the nation's capital Saturday, taking their roadshow of dueling mockery to a big stage set up on the national Mall. For the people who were there, what happened onstage didn't really matter so much, because I'd guess that at the very least--and this is a conservative estimate--half of the people there couldn't hear or see enough of it to really know what was going on.
They weren't really there for the politics. They were there for the party. This was a spectacle, bottom line. The message was mixed, mostly because of the audio...but also because the stage show seemed to alternate between appeals for sanity, general humor, music, and criticism of the media.
As Josh Green points out, no one was really sure what the purpose of the whole thing was.
The immediate takeaway: The crowd was massive. Way bigger than the Glenn Beck rally in July.
The Mall was packed for about five blocks, and, past the point where the big, central grassy areas were roped off, a thick crowd of people milled around or another four blocks or so. The crowd spilled off the mall for at least a block to the North and South; people lined up, wielding sarcastic signs, along the steps and terraces of the Smithsonian museums.
The sound of helicopters echoed off the big white museum buildings; sirens sounded frequently from the streets around the Mall; people chatted amongst each other; a drum circle formed around 12th St. (the stage was at 3rd); and all this meant that the rallygoers couldn't really hear what was going on, much less see it on the two jumbotrons at each side of the stage. The atmosphere was partyish, not serious. At all.
Attendance was helped by a whole lot of people from DC--Stewart/Colbert fans or just people who wanted to see The Roots or Jeff Tweedy, or, more likely, just to check out the whole scene as something to do on a Saturday.
"Our whole school's going to this thing," Rebecca Conrad, a George Washington University sophomore from Austin, Texas told me. "I have a lot of Republican friends who are going too. It's more a fun thing than a political thing."
A solid percentage of attendees did seem to have come from out of town--and these were the ones who seemed more serious about politics.
John Keith, a high school chemistry teacher from Rock Hill, South Carolina, drove in with his family of five and stayed out at the end of the orange line. When the Metro was packed this morning--a two-hour line at the Dunn Loring stop in Fairfax--they and seven other people piled in a van being driven by a retired banker from Brazil, who dropped them all off two blocks from the Mall for a total fare of $160.
"I came as much for the spectacle as for the message," Keith told me when I asked what compelled him to drive up.
James Herndon, a 43-year-old man in a tie-dyed T-shirt, wandered through the crowd near the National Air & Space Museum, where cops kept yelling at unsuspecting people to get off this one ledge. "Marijuana is good medicine," Herndon kept saying into a bullhorn. "It needs to be taxed and regulated." People seemed to like the message.
Toward the back of the crowd, nine blocks from the stage, a 21-year-old white guy named Ben skipped through the crowd yelling "Yay black people! Boo white people!" over and over again. I stopped him to ask him if he was on drugs, but he said no, he doesn't do them. There was a lot of this kind of self-conscious irony going on throughout the whole day, but Ben was probably the most ironic, or at least the loudest.
By and large, people I asked said they do plan to vote on Tuesday, and Ben was no exception. He's from Centreville, Virginia, Republican Rep. Frank Wolf's district on the outskirts of the DC metro area, and plans to vote Democratic there, even though he goes to James Madison University two hours away in Harrisburg.
Liberalism was high in this crowd, but not disaffection from President Obama. Responses were mixed on whether people are happy with the job he's doing. They seemed to understand that politics are difficult.
Stewart and Colbert did some interesting things onstage, and their relationship reached the point it's always needed to: They killed each other. Well, figuratively. Colbert claimed to have actually slain Steward by showing a montage of hyperbolic political media commentary--"Republicans lie!" Ed Schultz told everyone, before giving way to Ann Coulter--and John Oliver showed up to inform Stewart that he was dead. Oliver then implored the crowd to clap for Stewart, which the crowd (or at least those who were paying attention) did. But Stewart didn't come back to life. Colbert died, screaming "No! They're clapping!" Such is the state of things.
They've never seemed to complete each other more.
It's entirely unclear whether this event had any political significance. I went into it thinking that a big crowd would mean that intellectualized, elite liberalism is alive and kicking, and that a small crowd would mean that the Tea Partiers have won and the Stewart/Colbert viewership is not going to turn out for this year's midterms. If people didn't show up to this thing, Democrats would be doomed.
But that doesn't seem to be what it was about. It was impressive how many people had come in from out of town--and, on the whole, those people seemed to be more politically engaged.
At its heart, this rally was a big party for hipsters and hippies and curious observers without terribly strong feelings about politics but who wanted to check it out and see The Roots. It was a Saturday festival. No more, no less.