At the Rally to Restore Sanity

Went to DC last weekend for the Rally to Restore Sanity. We knew it would be a big crowd, so rather than taking the Metro, Miranda, Ryan and I walked the two and a half miles from her townhouse down Pennsylvania Ave. to the Mall. It was Saturday October 30, a perfect Fall day with a cool morning breeze that sent a few early leaves scattering around us. We had arranged to meet Phil and Nancy at the Sculpture Garden, and then the plan was to find Steve and Mark, who were already close to the stage. But by the time we got to the Rally itself, we found it impossible to meet up with anyone: there was no cell reception. Two hundred thousand other people were on their devices too, and the grid went down.

As we looked around for a spot to watch from, the crowd continued to grow more dense. At first, many people had staked out little bits of territory with comforters and lawn chairs. Gradually these disappeared as we were all pushed inexorably closer and closer together. Picnic blankets were trampled upon. Lawn chairs were pulled tight. People who had been sitting were forced to stand. By the time the Rally started, we were so wedged in that you literally could not clap unless you raised your hands in the air above you. Fortunately it was the most mellow, good humored group you can imagine. Liberals, of course. We don’t even get mad when you trample our blankets.

At one point, an elderly lady collapsed near us and people began shouting “Medic!” Ryan, who is a nurse, took off immediately toward her. The unmovable crowd miraculously parted for him. She was fine, as it turned out. But you could feel everyone’s jittery collective physical discomfort at being so jammed in. I’ve never been anxious in a crowd before. Thanks to yoga and meditation I knew enough to breathe every time I felt resistance arising. But I couldn’t really see anything. Tiny bits of stage and edges of jumbotrons. Signs on sticks above heads. Mylar balloons. Tops of heads. So I mostly listened. As it turned out, that was fine.

The people behind The Daily Show are pretty clever. Just as the show is a parody that skewers the pompous cliches of TV news programs, the Rally was a parody of a rally. There was a rambling, self contradictory benediction (from Father Guido Sarducci, an inspired choice). Lots of failed chants and goofy singalongs. Awards, tributes and guest speakers. Most of the jokes were good, and everything was geared to support the same message: that we all have to drop the conflict and the name calling if we want to solve our problems. Of course, there was a false equivalency drawn between the right and the left… one side is clearly more angry, divisive and hateful than the other, and I bet you know which side I mean. However, the overall point was well taken: meet your opponent’s anger with some humor, and let’s all see if we can bring it down a notch.

The day before, Phil had been kind enough to invite me to join him and Nancy on a tour of the Capitol he’d arranged through some former Poli Sci students of his from his classes at UCLA and Pepperdine. It was sweet and kind of moving to watch these two smart, accomplished, powerful people wandering like wide-eyed kids, absorbing these fascinating little details and the huge historic backdrop to it all. We started out in one of the Senate office buildings, where we got a behind-the-scenes look at the ornate offices and venerable hearing rooms — including the room that held the hearings on the Titanic, Army/McCarthy, organized crime, Watergate, and Iran/Contra… hearings I’d actually watched live (only the last two, thankyouverymuch).

We went to the “crypt” in the bottom of the Capitol, where a marble compass in the floor marks the very center of the city and the point from which the four neighborhoods (NW, NE, SW, SE) all begin. We stood in the Rotunda, this awe-inspiring space with beautiful sunlight pouring down through the Dome’s arching windows… ringed with giant Trumbull paintings and marble statues of the most admirable figures of U.S. history (plus a bronze replica of Reagan somebody snuck in). We also sat in the House and Senate galleries, looking down into those little chambers where some of the noblest words in American history, and some of the stupidest, have been spoken. Just outside the gallery entrances, the tile is visibly worn down and discolored from two centuries of the people walking in to watch their representatives at work.

The highlight of this tour was a half hour we spent in the Budget Committee’s chamber with a gentleman named Chris who manages the office budget process. Chris came to DC as an intern during Watergate, intending to stay a summer or so… he’s been there for 36 years. Soft-spoken, friendly, and articulate. In response to Phil’s question he talked about the decline in civility and comity that he’s witnessed over the past three decades. In the past, congressmen used to debate heatedly and then go hang out after work — they were personal friends and could work together when they needed to. Now more and more, only ideologues get elected. He’s worried about the future and what will happen after he retires in a couple of years.

What he takes comfort from, he said, is the young people. And with good reason: they were awesome. They were everywhere, working as aides and pages and office assistants, all of them professional, bright, and idealistic. Together with the older people we saw, we got a clear picture of the Congress at work — and it’s far from the grotesque caricature offered by the cynical operatives who want to advance corporate power by making people give up on their government. It’s a lot of savvy people working very hard, people who understand the responsibility that comes with power, people who aren’t sitting home in their barcaloungers complaining, but are busy getting things done.

After the Rally and dinner, Phil and Nancy and I walked around the White House — luminous in the floodlights, and home at this particular fortunate moment to a calm, wise and potentially great man. Then we went next door to the Round Robin bar in the Willard hotel. The bar is right off the lobby and is said to be the place where the term “lobbyist” was coined. It’s a tiny little round room ringed with sketches of its more illustrious patrons: Walt Whitman and Mark Twain among them. We had to stand at the bar until John Hodgman and his date vacated their table. So we sat and had martinis like a couple of grownups and toasted to DC and to our little reunion. Until this weekend, I hadn’t seen Phil in 20 years… we’ve had some longstanding, difficult and extremely painful conflicts in our time. But we finally reached across the aisle, so to speak, and recognized the things that connect us are stronger than those that divide us. I hadn’t expected to, but I told him I loved him. He looked surprised; he said the same. Our old issues seemed very far away, like some debate between Hayne and Webster on the Senate floor in 1830… and I bet those dudes went out for drinks afterwards. After I put Phil and Nancy into a taxi I walked out into the clear, crisp Washington evening and thanked the stars over my head for letting me outlive my youth.

There’s going to be the usual ruckus these next few weeks as the gloriously ascendant tea partiers come crowing and clucking into power. The wheel turns, and always some new bunch of people think they’re going to take charge and change everything. But real change takes time, and perseverance, and a willingness to accept and work with other people rather than shutting them out. You have to let go of your grievances, and your need to be right. Compromise has somehow become synonymous with failure, but it’s what our whole beautiful system is built on. And compromise starts with seeing past your own narrow point of view. It’s not the other guy who needs to change, it’s you. If you really want to restore sanity, a rally isn’t going to do it. You have to start with your own.

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