Looking out at an estimated audience of more than 150,000 people, wrestler Mick Foley held the "Medal of Reasonableness" that he had just received from Jon Stewart and yelled "Civility is cool!"
As a rallying cry, Foley's cheer was bizarrely soft-spoken. Not as divisive as "Four more years!" or "Four more wars!" Less stirring than "Remember the Maine!" or "Give me liberty or give me death!" Still, it perfectly captured the mood of the day. The audience echoed the call for moderation, carrying signs that declared the need for more courtesy in the national debate.
Aggressive moderation is a tough sell, but the crowd did its best to echo the message. Carrying banners that read "Turn It Up to 11 (on a scale of 100)," "Moderation or Death," "Yes We Can...Disagree Without Demonizing," and other similarly evenhanded sentiments, the audience was quiet, well-mannered and surprisingly respectful.
Courtesy is a tough commodity on the mall, where the flat topography can make visibility a problem. Yet when a protester's sign blocked the view of a giant video screen, dozens of voices called out "Could you put down your sign. Please?" And when the sign dropped, a chorus rose: "Thank you!"
The mood of the audience made a big impact. Asked what he enjoyed best about the day, participant Duncan Stroup said "I loved the crowd. Everybody was nice." Jorie Wilson, another audience member echoed "The thousands and thousands of people put off good vibes. There was a positive, fun, real sense of community."
On the stage, the mood was more conflicted. The official title of the event was "A Rally to Restore Sanity And/Or Fear," and the battle between the two was embodied by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. For the duration of the event, Stewart and Colbert used a variety of media to drive home the difference between collegiality and conflict. For example, while Stewart passed out medals for reasonableness, Colbert gave awards for those who have kept fear alive.
Some of the musical guests also echoed the theme. Stewart brought out Yusuf Islam (ne Cat Stevens), to sing Peace Train, and Colbert welcomed Ozzy Osborne, who played Crazy Train. Ultimately, the two Comedy Central hosts agreed to listen to Love Train, noting that, while love is beautiful, it can also be terrifying.
As the rally drew to its conclusion, Colbert and Stewart moved into open conflict. To show the power of fear, Colbert -- joined by a giant Colbert puppet -- unleashed videos of extremest conservative and liberal commentators. Stewart responded by wielding a remote control, noting that it can silence extremist, polarizing perspectives. . .by turning them off. A surreal battle followed, with Colbert symbolically slaying Stewart, who was revived by a Peter Pan-costumed John Oliver.
"More Reasonable News Coverage"
Summing up the theme of the day, Stewart told the audience "We live in hard times, not end times. We can have animus and not be enemies. But unfortunately, one of our main tools in delineating the two broke. The country's 24-hour [news cycle] did not create our problems, but its existence makes solving them that much harder."
Wilson reiterated Stewart's point: "If today has any effect, I would like to see it lead to more reasonable news coverage, without the ridiculous sound bites and scare tactics. I would like to see less focus on the fringe."