You could make the case that politics began slipping inexorably toward self-mockery around the time that President Clinton wagged his finger at the camera and denied having “sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky,” who later used her fame to peddle handbags on MTV.
And you could say that the marriage of satire and politics will be formalized on Saturday, when the National Mall becomes the stage for the country’s two biggest comi-pundits, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, co-hosts of the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.
Is it any coincidence that the two episodes share a common thread?
The merry pranksters behind Saturday’s rally, assiduously billed as a nonpartisan event but geared toward the younger viewers more likely to line up behind Democratic candidates and causes, are a pair of Clinton White House veterans.
Co-organizers Craig Minassian, who worked in Clinton’s press office, and Chris Wayne, who served in the advance office, both say that the idea for the rally sprang from Stewart and Colbert.
“They don’t rely on a lot of coaching,” Minassian said of the Comedy Central duo. He helped prep Colbert for the infamous 2006 White House Correspondents' Association Dinner, where the in-character comic harpooned President Bush. “They’re definitively not political animals from the standpoint of, they’re not out there trying to make a particular point.”
Wayne called the event “an interesting mix between a big rally and a television production.”
With Stewart brandishing the notion of “a clarion call for rationality” and mocking suggestions that the rally holds a deeper meaning, organizers chuckled at the punditocracy's effort to find real-world political implications.
“I don’t think they’re looking at it as a political event,” Wayne said of the Comedy Central TV hosts. “Clearly, there are a whole lot of people out there who are fed up with the wings of both sides, and there are people just ready to laugh at the process. These guys have tapped into whatever that feeling is out there, that it’s gotten a little ridiculous.”
Still, by virtue of the rally's timing (it will be held three days before the midterm elections), the event holds undeniably electoral dimensions for Democrats aiming to tap an elusive youth vote and for Republicans hoping that their rivals will be too busy yukking it up in Washington to be door-knocking in battleground states.
Minassian, for one, doesn’t see a net winner or loser between the Left and Right in the satire game. The two George Bushes and Democrats, including President Obama and Minassian's former boss, have been favorite targets for comedy shows such as Saturday Night Live. Those attacks benefit both sides, Minassian argued.
“For most politicians or most causes, your base gets energized when you’re under attack,” he said. “So it works both ways.”
Even ballpark estimates of projected attendance for Saturday have been hard to come by. In an essentially meaningless indicator, more than 217,000 people had RSVP’d in the affirmative on Facebook. Wayne declined to provide a high-end projection, but he said anecdotal evidence pointed to packed hotels and an uptick on Amtrak bookings.
The permit space allows for 150,000 to 200,000 people, a turnout that Wayne laughed off as unlikely.
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