As a piece of entertainment, it wasn’t quite as funny as your average episode of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report. Nor do I think it could have been. Stewart and Colbert were working in an unfamiliar format for a crowd of unprecedented size under the watchful eye of a commentary class hungry to jump on anything they could paint as inflammatory. The result was a program that was silly and lighthearted but also scrupulously inoffensive. I think the presence of Sheryl Crow and John Legend, two people who have made a career out of being competent and inoffensive, says it all.
Plus there’s the fact that 99.9% of the crowd could have gotten a better view of the proceedings from their living room. I was about halfway through the crowd, and even at that distance my arms were pinned to my sides by the people around me. The stage wasn’t visible, and the nearest jumbotrons just barely. Behind me, every once in a while, I could hear a crowd roughly the size of two packed football stadiums chant, “Louder! Louder!”
That was more striking than the show itself: the size. Estimates put it at around 200,000, or roughly 2.5 times the size of Glenn Beck’s “Restore Honor” rally. I think most people who showed up were there mostly to see each other all massed in one location. It was certainly something. Unsurprisingly, the assembled masses weren’t all, or even mostly, stoned hipsters or shrieking Code Pink members. For the most part they seemed to be polite, reasonable, middle class people with generally leftish political leanings and similar taste in late-night comedy. I wouldn’t call them the silent majority, but they’re certainly the silent statistically significant demographic. When the rally disbanded, there wasn’t a single restaurant in downtown DC without a line leading out the door. I’ve never seen a crowd of comparable size anywhere in my life, and it seems possible that I never will.
But why? Was there a point? Yes, and I was a little too glib yesterday in suggesting that this was just a piece of entertainment upon which others had impressed their own views. Jon Stewart made the point in his earnest closing remarks, which turned out to be the least showman-like and most worthwhile part of the entire program. Here’s the video:
And here’s the transcript.
I’m not so sure that this will one day, as Charli Carpenter suggests, ”be considered among the greatest political speeches of our country’s history,” but I was certainly impressed. “Jon Stewart gets serious for a moment” could easily have been a grievous miscalculation, an unfunny piece of pseudo-messianic sermonizing from an ex-funny funnyman who let the high ratings get to his head. But Stewart didn’t lose his sense of humor, least of all about himself, and that saved the entire speech.
Good thing, too, because he’s absolutely right. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that I’m more wholly in the tank for Jon Stewart than for virtually any pundit or political figure, but this speech, I think, vindicated my unreserved admiration. Beyond that, I’m unsure what else it did. One event like this certainly won’t restore sanity, if we ever had it in the first place. But the message was impossible to ignore. The audience who turned up to hear it was too big. Maybe, for that reason, we can look forward to just a sliver of contrition and self-examination from some of the people Stewart, directly or indirectly, called out.
Honestly, though? I sort of doubt it. Instead, I’m just going to keep my fingers crossed that their reaction is so misguided and indignant that it finally persuades a chunk of their audience that Stewart was right all along. If we can’t convert them, maybe we can hit them in the ratings.