Jon Stewart's 'Rally to Restore Sanity' Draws Thousands to Washington

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Comedian Stephen Colbert (2nd R), emerging from under the stage, runs across the stage in front of fellow rally host Jon Stewart (L) during their "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear" on the National Credit: Reuters

Tens of thousands of people showed up at Washington's National Mall on Saturday to attend a rally hosted by two comedians who have made their names by mocking the U.S. political establishment.

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Jon Stewart's and Stephen Colbert's Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in front of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., October 30, 2010.Credit: Natasha Mozgovaya
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Jon Stewart's and Stephen Colbert's Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in front of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., October 30, 2010.Credit: Reuters
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Jon Stewart's and Stephen Colbert's Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in front of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., October 30, 2010.Credit: Reuters

The rally, broadcast live online, took place just three days ahead of crucial midterm elections in a highly contested campaign season that is expected to give Republicans a huge boost in Congress.

Polls show they are set to regain control of the House of Representatives and mount a strong challenge to Democratic control of the Senate.

Comedian Jon Stewart, who hosts the Comedy Central's spoof news programme the Daily Show, said he was holding his "Rally to Restore Sanity" in an effort to restore civility to the campaign.

At the same time and stage near the footsteps of the Capitol Building, partner Steven Colbert, who plays a rabble-rousing right wing news anchor on the Colbert Report, held the "March to Keep Fear Alive".

The event was kicked off with live music under clear blue skies and in modest temperatures followed by some comedic acts filled with laughs, in front of a mostly young and left-leaning audience.

Some held signs poking fun at conservatives who accuse President Barack Obama of pursuing a socialistic agenda.

"Does my ability to spell make me a socialist?" said one sign.

One key aspect of Stewart's rally was said to be to promote dialogue and tolerance across the political spectrum, a point even Republican conservatives were willing accept.

"Both sides have to be able to take a joke," said Connie Ryan, a self-described conservative from Pittsburgh. Ryan was meeting a left leaning friend from New Jersey. Linda Moskowitz said she was there to highlight the ability of both sides to get along.

"It's why we're here. Because we talk to each other, not shout at each other," she said.

One of the first acts of the rally was to teach the audience to "laugh politely".

The rally has become an election season sensation and has garnered national attention, including live coverage on news channels, and has exposed the influential role Stewart and Colbert have in the political dialogue.

Obama appeared as a guest on Stewart's show on Wednesday.

The three-hour rally has also raised questions about politics and and comedy. Stewart continues to insist that it is all about the latter.

Despite his claims, was it trying to make a serious political statement? Was it a joke that snowballed out of control? Or was it just a publicity stunt for Stewart and Colbert to pump up their already impressive ratings?

Stewart came on to the stage, followed by the national anthem.

"Are you ready to restore sanity?" Stewart screamed to a cheering crowd, then told them they dare not litter on the National Mall.

Democratic leaders reportedly asked Stewart to cancel the event, fearing that it could divert attention from the need to galvanize the party's voters days before they are due to go to the polls.

Yet with the rally going ahead undeterred, Democrats are also hoping to channel the energies of what is likely to be a young crowd.

A mass mailing from Democrats this week invited attendees to the party's national headquarters after the rally to volunteer for a "phone bank" and lobby crucial voters.

The party is facing a tough challenge as Republicans stoke the fires of economic frustration in a bid to win back control of Congress from the Democrats.

Stewart, whose satire has made him one of the most influential media stars in the country, proposed the idea after right-wing icons Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin held their own "apolitical" rally at the Washington Mall in late August.

That was a conservative Tea Party event, and it seems there is nothing Stewart likes better than exposing to ridicule the logical absurdities that he sees in many of that grassroots organization's ideas.

Stewart insists his march was also apolitical, and a venue for moderates of all political persuasions to vent their frustrations at the extremist rhetoric and confrontational style that has come to dominate the American political scene in recent years.

Stewart said the rally was for people who are "tired of their reflection in the media as being a divided country and a country that's ideological and conflicted and fighting, this is for those people".

"Republicans love America. They just seem to hate about 50 percent of the people who live in it," Stewart said on CNN's Larry King Live last week.

"Democrats, for their thing, it's always: They love this country, they just somehow wish it were a different country. With Democrats, it's like, 'America is the greatest country in the world. (But) have you seen Finland's health care system'?"

"It has become difficult to hear voices that are not the extreme," said graduate student Lita Tirak who planned to drive some three hours from William Mary College in Virginia to attend the event.

"This rally supports an even balance of conversation without anger, without the extremes," she said. "At a time when campaign ads distort and instigate anger from TV viewers, this rally offers comedic relief and critical thought." 

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