In Washington, D.C., Thursday, Oct. 28—Getting Ready to Rally
My friend Pat Knapp and I have come to Washington, D.C., for Emmy-winning comedian Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity. I saw him announce it on his show Sept. 17 and thought right away about going. Pat, a Lincoln, Neb. lawyer, read about it and sent an e-mail to a group of friends with the subject line, “OH MY GOD I WANT TO GO!!!” I replied and, typical of me, had already checked flights and prices. Our friends demurred, citing preexisting sanity. Pat and I had plane tickets and a room in a couple of days.
In Washington, we dined with my old Lincoln friends, now living in Alexandria, DeAnn Hughes, a volunteer archeologist, her husband Joe Berchenko, an architect, and their friend Nora Hild, also an architect, formerly of Lincoln but in D.C. from her home in Sonoma County, Calif., for the rally. Joe and Nora graduated in architecture from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and worked together. We know the Park Service is planning on 60,000 people but can handle 120,000. Nora says 225,000 have registered on Facebook, none of them us. We make vague plans to meet on the National Mall Saturday.
Also coming from Lincoln are artist and theater director Bob Hall and friend Paula Ray, a neuropsychologist. They plan to call from the Mall.
Rally Day, Saturday, Oct. 30
Up early. I believe the registration number. But I disbelieve the early descriptions of the Rally as a youth rally. The only people I know who are going are Boomers—at best.
Pat and I are out the hotel door around 9 a.m. It’s chilly, around 50 degrees, but sunny. We stop by a panini shop for a breakfast we can eat walking, sandwiches for later and something to drink on the Mall. These we put in a shopping bag. It will be hard and expensive to buy anything at the rally, where there will be “official vendors.” Yuck. Not the Nebraska way. We dress warmly in layers and carry our purses. We will be significantly outdone by nearly everyone who can hoist a lawn chair.
The streets are still pretty empty as we start out. But closer to the Mall, we begin to see threads of people. We set foot on the Mall at exactly 10. My daughter Kandalyn has counseled me. Veteran of Chicago music fests, she has told me to stake out territory and never desert it. Take turns if you leave for food or the port-a-potty (I have offered up prayers to what gods there are that I will not have to use a port-a-potty this beautiful day.)
We enter the Mall near the rear of the prepared area and head toward the stage. I see the JumboTron arrays—there are eight, four on each side, each protected by temporary fencing. I hustle toward the last JumboTron on the left, and Pat helps me mark out the last four feet of fence space. We sit. And claim some space behind with our purses.
I call Joe. They are still in Alexandria. I tell him where we are if they want to meet us. I call Bob. He tells me they are trying to get on the Metro. I call my partner Lew in Lincoln and leave a message to let him know I made it to the rally. I call my daughter. Those are the last phone messages I will be able to transmit or receive before the Sprint network overloads. As with most cell phone outages, it’s a good thing.
Everywhere are costumes and signs, always the signs. A guy with an enormous fake Afro with a huge pick in it. Elmo. I think I will see every member of the Sesame Street cast. Witches and Vikings. A couple, both dressed as Waldo from “Where’s Waldo?” A zombie staggers by. “It Isn’t Easy Living Beside Crazy People, Eh?” with Canadian flags.
Meanwhile, up toward the stage, Joe, DeAnn and Nora arrive and stand by a group who came to the Mall to practice movement and meditation as usual on Saturday morning. They will not be swayed. Photos are taken. Ralliers politely join in. Eventually the crowd subsumes them. “Extreme & Bitter—Not my Cup of Tea.”
Darth Vader strolls by. A girl and her boyfriend in a Mexican wrestler’s mask. I see several more Mexican wrestlers’ masks. It’s an ironic protest against Americans taking Mexican jobs. Someone in a tutu, a platinum wig and a lacy parasol. Santa Claus. A guy dressed as a bunch of grapes. I hear he’s part of a living Fruit-of-the-Loom label. “It’s a No Boehner—Vote Democratic.” “We Packed Sandwiches.”
I can now confirm this is not entirely, even mostly, a youth rally. The people to my left are obviously at least Boomers. She’s got beautiful silver hair. He sits down on the ground and stays there for the entire rally. We’re asked to get to our feet several times, but his knees can’t take it. I ask them what they think the split of Boomers to others is. Fifty/fifty, they guess. I’m thinking the folks to the right are there with their grandkids. There’s a guy behind us with a white walrus mustache in a lawn chair reading the Post. I’m pretty sure he’s going to tell me to get off the grass. “If Obama’s a Muslim, Can We Have Fridays Off?”
The crowd has been promenading the Mall, circling and mingling. Then, it begins to congeal. Too many people to circulate now. I look to my left and a rubbery Dick Cheney is staring at me. I wave. He nods and waves back. “Congress Should Do Stuff.” “Chill, Dammit!”
The JumboTrons start playing musical highlights from Stewart shows and key moments in the build up to the rally from his and Colbert’s show. It’s LOUD.
Out in the suburbs, Bob and Paula have waited with thousands of people 90 minutes in a parking lot just to get into a Metro station to buy a ticket to wait to be packed into a Metro car. At the end of the ride, it has taken 20 minutes to get out of the station. Then, having got onto the Mall, they are pushed back off. And through it all, Bob will say, everyone seems happy and the mood is great. “Best crowd I’ve been in since the Bicentennial in Battery Park.” And that was 35 years ago! “Tea Parties Are For Little Girls.”
A deafening blast of noise as The Roots starts warming up the crowd. Then do I truly question my brilliance in snagging this great seating in front of the megaspeakers. But at least we do not spend two hours, like the people who can’t get onto the Mall, sitting on the steps of adjacent buildings shouting, “Louder! Louder!” “Bring Back ’80’s Hair.”
1 p.m. Promptly
It dawns on us, we are at a TV show. Okay. Everyone’s on and off on time. It’s brilliant. It’s exhilarating. Jon Stewart. The national anthem. With the Capitol in front of us and the Washington Monument behind us, I have tears in my eyes.
Moments: Father Guido Sarducci in a cassock and zebra-skin vest. Is there a more ironic comedian for this young generation of ironists? But they don’t know him. We older ralliers know and love him. How can he be so funny and yet offer such gratitude for life and all blessings? I’ve heard a lot of religious invocations in my day. This one has all sanctimoniousness wrung out of it. “And thank you, God, for the universe, the trees, the animals … especially dogs…,” says the comedian, real name Don Novello. The JumboTron shows a rallier in a dog suit. It feels like an honest moment to me.
Venerable actor Sam Waterston appears to read a poem by Steven Colbert. The crowd cheers and then quiets. An attractive young woman beside us springs to her feet and screams, “Will you marry me?” We’re three blocks from the stage. Her plea disappears into the sunny sky. “Moderation or death.” “none of my opinions merit the use of capitals.”
Jon Stewart announces that he’s received a call from a musician who’s written a song for the rally. On comes rock star par excellence Kid Rock. He’s a talented performer. It’s a message song—“Care”—urging his audience to continue feeling, though they can’t stop wars and feed all the poor. Well placed for an anesthetized cohort as the performer heads toward his 40th birthday. “Anyone Want to Trade Signs?”
Could the event have ended on any higher note than Tony Bennett? He was ferried in by limousine, appeared on stage like magic and rent the bright blue air with “America the Beautiful” for exactly 50 seconds. It was, as they say, all good. And the show was over. “Don’t Tread on Me—any more than you absolutely have to.”