It was an early sign that this was not an ordinary political rally: the organizers put the crowd estimate at somewhere between 10 million to 6 billion.
And on the mall, the signs were equally zany. “This is a good sign,” said one sign. “I like Ice Cream,” said another. And a man dressed as a bear wore a t-shirt saying, “Free Bear Hugs.”
Still, it is perhaps a measure of the volatility of American politics that a television comedy show was able to tap something deep among American voters, who turned out in the tens of thousands on Saturday to add their voices to a national political debate that some said had left them behind.
The crowds flooded the National Mall for the “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear,” an overwhelming response to a call by Jon Stewart, the political satirist whose comedy show commands a broad, youthful audience of politically engaged Americans. The turn-out clogged traffic, and filled subways and buses to the point of overflow.
And though it was billed as a gathering for civility — a party on a sunny Saturday for people to enjoy thoughtful conversation — for participants it was a serious political affair. Some were canvassing for votes. Others were searching for a message they felt had been lost by Democrats since President Obama was elected in 2008.
"We don’t have any place to turn," said Michelle Sabol, 41, a jewelry designer from Pittsburgh who was wearing a grey cap with a carpenter’s level sewn on top. "Why are these Democrats running away from Obama’s accomplishments? It’s a kick in the gut."
She said that Mr. Stewart and his compatriot, Stephen Colbert, whose show, “The Colbert Report,” airs after Mr. Stewart’s, voiced the bitterness and frustration she felt.
"We came because we feel like this is a safe place to be reasonable," she said.
The rally seemed to be channeling something deep — a craving to be heard and a frustration with the lack of leadership, less by Mr. Obama, some participants said, than by a Democratic party that they saw as timid, fearful, and failing to stand up for the president’s accomplishments.
“I’m proud of Obama, but the Democrats in Congress, they’re just running for cover,” said Ron Harris, a lawyer from Laguna Beach, Calif., who came to celebrate his 64th birthday. “They should be arguing his case.”
He added, “They couldn’t sell bread to a starving mother if God was standing next to them.”
A group of Washington residents printed bumper stickers that read "Give Change a Chance" and handed them out near the National Gallery of Art.
Carol Newmyer, 55, said the bumper stickers were meant to remind people that President Obama has "only had 18 months to turn around a mess."
She said she would go to a Democratic phone bank later in the afternoon to help with get-out-the-vote efforts. "I want to see the heart and soul of the Democrats that elected Obama come out and vote again," she said.
The National Parks Service does not provide estimates of the size of crowds at rallies on the National Mall, but Mr. Stewart estimated the crowd at 10 million. And Mr. Colbert offered his own guess in a Twitter message that read,” "Early estimate of crowd size at Rally: 6 billion.
"The rally drew young and old from all over America. A group of students from the University of Kentucky had driven nine hours overnight, and slept in a rest stop by the highway in Maryland to attend. They said the rally made them feel connected.
“We want to say, ‘We exist,’” said Jonathan Erwin, 20, an architecture student. “We have a voice. Jon Stewart is only the enabler.”