The Corner

Sane or Smug?

Jon Stewart called in good faith for civility at his “Rally to Restore Sanity” on Saturday. “Not being able to distinguish between real racists and tea partiers . . . is an insult,” he joked, “not only to those people, but to the racists themselves.”

And the crowd laughed — even while one of its members held a sign that asked, “Where was the outrage when the big spender was a white guy?”

No, that sign wasn’t necessarily indicative of the majority’s sentiment. But another was, and it read, “Sanity has a well-known liberal bias.”

I was one of the 200,000 people who thronged the National Mall. For the most part, the attendees were good-humored and respectful. They teased their more earnest compatriots with signs that snickered, “The Civil War was an inside job” and “My taxes aren’t as high as I am.” They also left East Seaton and Henry Parks — where most of them stood — spotless.

“I came to the rally because it looked like a heck of a lot of fun,” Francie Ryl, an attendee from Dover, Delware, told me. “It was a good excuse to make a stupid sign.”

Yet most ralliers were unabashedly liberal. “Restore Sanity, Fight Fox” was a common refrain in the signage — and a relatively muted one compared to some others. Attendees brandished pictures of Glenn Beck with captions like “Deliver Us from Evil” and “Glenn Beck is a Fascist.” When Stewart played a montage of pundits pontificating — judiciously including MSNBC’s talking heads with Fox News’s — only Beck’s visage drew murmured boos.

Some were blatantly partisan, carrying banners that proclaimed them “Saner than Boehner,” or warned “Fear the Rise of the GOP.” Left-wing groups, such as Planned Parenthood and Organizing for America, poached hundreds of the readily available warm bodies for signing petitions and making calls.

Even liberals whose sanity was particularly suspect made a showing. About a dozen members of Code Pink dressed like characters from Alice in Wonderland — probably to highlight connection between the Mad Hatter and his liking for tea — and berated President Obama for continuing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. “I think we’re a fascist state,” Jenefer Ellingston, one of the protesters, told me.

Another fellow — dressed as “Death” — carried a poster that said, “Death thanks the GOP for its stance on health care reform. You guys sure make my job easy.”

All of which was fine. Liberals have a right to air their views. The only problem with the ralliers was their slippery equation of conservatism with irrationality. Christine O’Donnell has done crazy things, reasoned a rallier who spoke with me, therefore, all her political positions are crazy. Privatizing Social Security was just as “extreme” as her dabbling in witchcraft. How would that rallier react if he knew that Bill Clinton — that paragon of sanity — once supported a similar program?

Stewart and his counterpart, Stephen Colbert, showed a similar bias in their mock debate. To defend his side, that of rationality, Stewart quoted a Democrat, Franklin Roosevelt: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Colbert countered with a quotation of a Republican, Richard Nixon: “People react to fear, not love — they don’t teach that in Sunday School, but it’s true.” The two were equally facile when Stewart convinced Colbert that not all Muslims are terrorists by making an analogy: not all robots are bad, just look at R2D2.

True, these were comedians joking around, and Stewart made a concerted effort to include tea partiers in his defense of political actors. But standing in the crowd, you got the sense that when the ralliers applauded Stewart, they also applauded themselves. “Sanity will always be and has always been in the eye of the beholder,” Stewart said. “To see you here today and the kind of people that you are has restored mine.”

But the attendees didn’t need their sanity restored — or so they seemed to think. Perhaps the ralliers should have tried a little introspection and considered whether everything they said was moderate — or reasonable.

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