I booked my ticket and hotel room for the Rally to Restore Sanity the day it was announced. There were some clues of it happening on Reddit once the DonorsChoose campaign kicked off (where Colbert sent a personal message to Reddit when the donation total blew past $100k in 24 hours), so I was prepared when it was announced. Once it was announced, however, it was pretty obvious that nobody really knew what this rally would actually accomplish. Was it just to talk about how the level of political discourse had gotten completely out of hand? Was it to mock Glenn Beck’s 8/28 rally? Was it to drive youth turnout to the 2010 midterm elections? Or was it just an opportunity for fans of The Daily Show to meet up?

The truth is a blend of all of those, with different ratios depending on who you talk to. The event itself was rife with comedy and music. The signs and costumes were hilarious and well executed demonstrations of apathy and discontent with the process. The people themselves were extremely nice and polite. It was positive, not negative. It was nationalist, not political. And even if Stewart started his rally wrap-up speech with a rhetorical question of “what exactly was this?”, the message was clear, as it was when the event was announced: “take it down a notch, for America”.

Most of all, it was a wonderful vacation away from the political rhetoric that tends to get ratcheted up to its most extreme in the days before an election.

What should not be doubted is the impact of the event. The event planners filed a permit for 60,000 people; they got port-a-potties for 150,000. But every estimate has put the number way higher. MTV, Comedy Central’s owner, claimed over 250k. National Park Service reportedly and unofficially estimated over 200k. And CBS/AirPhotosLive estimated 215k (of note, AirPhotosLive did an estimate on Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor rally, and pegged that number at 87k ± 9k). And this does not include the thousands of satellite rallies held across the United States and in countries all over the world, as well as all the people who watched it on Comedy Central, on C-SPAN, or watched a stream online. They were clearly not prepared for the sheer size of the crowd. A number of times during the event, especially during the brief and minor technical difficulties, there was a chant of “Louder! Louder!” that swelled from the back and sides of the crowd. The screens and sound systems were not placed far back for many attendees. Even the Mythbusters’ appearance showed that it took over 50 seconds for a wave to make it from the front to the back. This event was monstrous in scale.

Stewart’s impassioned speech at the end really hit home for me. Juan Williams is not a racist, Rick Sanchez is not a bigot, Muslims are not terrorists, and conflating these makes it harder to tell who’s actually a racist/bigot/terrorist. The economic disaster and our wars have made these difficult times, but not the catastrophic end of days that members of the media so often claim. Liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, the loudest big government progressives, the most staunch of the Tea Partiers, and everyone in between make compromises every day to make society function properly, except in Washington DC and except in the political media.

The news media has largely failed at covering the event. They were there, sure, but they spent most of their time decrying the rallygoers as hipsters and potheads. They also downplayed the effect of those that went by saying those would be people who were already going to vote. Only a couple analysts seemed to understand that it wasn’t about the left vs the right, or about the Tea Party vs Progressives, but that it was about the process vs the wants of the people.

It was sobering and illuminating to learn just how many like minded people are out there. Hopefully the politicians and people in the media get the hint, and dial down some of this rhetoric that only perpetuates the problems instead of working to fix them.

P.S. I wrote and published this on a plane. The future? Still awesome.