WASHINGTON - OCTOBER 30: Comedians Steven Colbert (L) and Jon Stewart perform at the Rally To Restore Sanity And/Or Fear on the National Mall on October 30, 2010 in Washington, DC. Stewart and Colbert held the rally, which tens of thousands of people attended. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
“So, uh, what exactly was this?”
Jon Stewart brought the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear to a close Saturday with a heartfelt, if at times cloying, call for tolerance that began with those words. It was one of the few moments of the weekend’s exercise that I found moving, or even coherent. But now that it’s done, what about that question? What was it?
The idea for the rally started off as a half-joking response to Glenn Beck’s August Restoring Honor event. But given Stewart’s on-the-fence role as both our era’s leading political satirist and insightful media critic, it was hard to see what he intended the rally to mean. By the time “10-30-10” rolled around, the rally had been co-opted by a variety of liberal interest groups, and the original message of moderation and respect for diverse views seemed diminished.
This was just good strategy for these groups. Though the event was nonpartisan, most of Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s fans -- particularly those enthusiastic enough to travel to Washington -- are politically engaged liberals, so the rally was an easy target. But at the event itself, Stewart’s message conflicted with those of some of his followers.
It’s true that most of the sign-toting attendees got the joke. There were silly signs -- “I Like Turtles” and “End ‘Glee’ Theme Nights” and “My Arms are Tired” -- and signs calling for respectful debate. One of the best was a World War II veteran’s “I Fought the Nazis, and They Don’t Look Like Obama.”
But a sizeable contingent chose to use the event to slam Beck -- giving even more attention to an unserious figure who is listened to by no one outside the fan base he already has -- or to be just plain nasty. Though Stewart has often criticized comparing any mainstream politician to Adolf Hitler, a few folks carried signs with photos of every leading GOP leader with a Hitler moustache -- even Jewish congressman Eric Cantor.
These folks were a minority. But during my brief time at the rally -- after the 90-minute Metro adventure and an hour in a crush of bodies, I gave up and went home to watch the rest on TV -- I detected a level of intolerance from some attendees. Besides signs mocking conservatives, I heard several people make statements suggesting that it’s impossible for a Republican to be open-minded or moderate.
The worst was reserved for the Tea Party movement, which is perhaps understandable given the current of anti-intellectualism in its populism. But when Stewart said that “not being able to distinguish between real racists and Tea Partiers and real bigots and Juan Williams or Rick Sanchez is an insult,” I wondered if some of those hoisting signs with just that message felt a bit embarrassed.
In his Washington Post column Sunday, Robert McCartney wrote that though “the crowd was wary of admitting it,” it was “decidedly partisan and decidedly liberal.” Though attendees told him that they “wanted less anger and more thoughtfulness in public debate and media coverage of what ails the nation,” follow-up questions showed that most thought “more calm debate and rationality would inevitably lead to adoption of pretty much the entire campaign platform of the national Democratic Party.”
Despite all this, the rally was good for democracy. Stewart genuinely believes in respectful debate -- he has chided audiences of his show for booing conservative guests, and he has a good relationship with some right-leaning media peers like Bill O’Reilly. But the rally also showed that intolerance of other views is not merely a right-wing phenomenon.
Follow P.J. Orvetti on Twitter at @PJOinDC