The preemptive demonstration against the preemptive war, which drew an estimated 250,000 chilled Americans to the Mall last weekend, was as polite and peaceful as George W. Bush could have asked. It also had diversity, an imperative he lately discovered.
A snippy woman with a British accent told CNN that the shivering marchers looked "unwashed" to her, but in fact grubby was the exception. The majority were well-groomed, well-educated and carried signs such as "No Blood for Oil'' -- not those wounding personal messages that drove Johnson and Nixon into paroxysms of self-pity and paranoia.
Danny Maguire, age 19, a college student with wide green eyes and face fuzz that may be a beard someday, rode a bus from Kansas City, Mo., for 23 hours. He hoped that the president, who makes much of his faith, was taking in the fact that the march was faith-based: The Catholic bishops, the National Council of Churches and many rabbinical organizations were opposed to an attack on Saddam Hussein.
Maguire is a history student, but his real passion is social justice, and his patron saint is Dorothy Day, the Catholic radical who took the Gospels literally. Maguire volunteers at his local Dorothy Day Center serving meals to the homeless. "Bush wants to improve the quality of life in Iraq," he grumbles during a lunch break, "but he should do it here first."
He and his friends have been staging heartland protests for months. They put on mock inspections at local weapons plants.
His parents, both retired social workers, thought he might get a reputation as a troublemaker. But when he made plans to board one of the three buses, each carrying 58 passengers, and expressed some concern about the police cameras he had been told were set up to photograph marchers, his mother said, "Don't worry, honey, when we protested at Columbia [the Columbia campus of the University of Missouri] they had police with drawn guns stationed on the roofs of the buildings around us."
Maguire wants to be a singer. His idol is Paul Robeson. During the last phase of the 23-hour trip to the Capitol, his bus had a singalong. He provided the bass harmony for "Down By the Riverside" ("Ain't gonna study war no more"), which was on the antiwar hit parade of 30 or more years ago.
He did not expect the Mall to change Bush's mind. He hoped the marchers might reach the president's wife, Laura, "because sometimes women have a different perspective." He did not mention national security adviser Condi Rice, who is famously one of the boys about war.
Talk of a draft didn't concern him. "I would fight if my country was attacked, but I would conscientiously object to going overseas to clean up a mess over 20 years old." More than 30 years ago, people his age made up the bulk of the masses that stormed Washington to implore two presidents to give peace a chance.
Their numbers were a subject of passionate argument. In 1970 Nixon officials strictly forbade local and park police to give crowd counts to the press.
One of the groups last Saturday that was having trouble making a connection between an attack on Iraq and the war on terror -- just like the U.N. Security Council -- was a newly formed organization called September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "Wars are a poor choice for carving out peaceful tomorrows." The group's members feel they are speaking for their beloved dead.
Valerie Lucznikowska, a 64-year-old Manhattanite and public relations executive, carried a sign with a picture of her 37-year-old nephew, Adam Arias, who was killed as he fled from the World Trade Center. The legend: "Not in His Name."
Lucznikowska is a Democratic activist who thinks her party "eviscerated itself" by endorsing the war resolution in Congress. She resents the idea that bombing Baghdad would somehow ease the suffering of the victims' families. "The 9/11 families can't be healed by seeing other people's families being destroyed," she says grimly.
Through the Internet she met a gentle-spoken veterinarian from Durham, N.H., whose husband died in a United flight heading for Los Angeles on 9/11. Bob LeBlanc was a geography professor at the University of New Hampshire, and he loved to travel. Their tickets for India were on his desk the day he died.
His wife lost interest in life. Lucznikowska talked Andrea LeBlanc into the peace march.
"For the first time, I felt better," LeBlanc said of the cold day. "I think my husband was right there with me. I felt as though I were in a river of peaceful people."
Whatever presidents think of peace marches, to those who march they are a source of peace and of the most important information they could have -- that they are not alone.