DOWN AT 18th and G, where the police chief sat in his car, the Iranian demonstrators filed by, calling for the death of the shah and yelling things about the CIA, and it was like they were singing "America the Beautiful." You had to listen hard, but that is what they were singing.

In the street, they kept coming. The students were olive-skinned and always it seemed, in need of a shave, and the women were bundled against the 20th century -- heads covered in the traditional fashion. Every once in a while, someone older would pass by, someone not a student. One of them was a man dressed in a blue business suit. He was old and he was short and he looked like he was lost on the way to the Metropolitan Club. But he was Khomeini's man, no doubt about it.

It was lunch hour in Washington. It was downtown, the area of the banks and the White House and the agencies. Some of the bystanders shouted at the demonstrators and some people made obscene gestures but most people just watched. Like me, they had never seen anything quite like this.

Come tell me the sense of this sort of demonstration? Tell me why people march in support of people who are threatening the life of innocent hostages -- march not in their own country but in the homeland of the hostages. Explain the gratitude they have for the country that has given them an education and tell me how you can call for the death of a man -- any man -- who is already dying of cancer.

Tell me if the shah, high in his New York hospital room, can hear the demonstrators down the block calling for his death, and if, somehow, he knew it would come to this -- lots of money and lots of influential friends but without a home. He is wanted almost nowhere. The exception is Iran, and there they want him dead.

The line of demonstrators moved on. It was long and surrounded by cops. There were cops in the front and cops in the rear and cops throughout the crowd. Every other policeman had a bulge in his suit jacket and an earplug in his ear. Along the flanks of the march, cops rode on horseback. The horses walked close together -- head to rump. It was like the flying wedge out of the old days of football. There was no way to break through.

This is a city of demonstrations. It has seen so many of them they are almost commonplace. People demonstrate here for causes you never heard of and in the name of countries you can't find on your old National Geographic maps. They march and they march and they march, and sometimes they march because they love something and sometimes because they hate something, but never because they love a man who does nothing but hate.

A student held a bullhorn. "Death to the shah," he shouted. The voice came out tinny but then the other demonstrators echoed it: "Death to the shah." Farther down the line of march, another student cheerleader called for a different slogan: "Long live Khomeini." Then the students behind him picked up this chant, and if you stayed between the two groups you could hear one chant with one ear and another chant with another ear. It is this way with marching bands in a parade.

All the time, the people on the curb yelled back. Some people yelled, "Death to Khomeini," and one person held up a placard with a toilet bowl drawn on it. It said "Flush Khomeini down the drainey." It made you laugh.

But there was plenty of anger, too. It is not easy to have your own countrymen taken hostage. It is not easy to see your flag curbed and your nation spat on. It is not easy coming after Vietnam and Panama and all the losses -- always we lose. It would be good to win one, to kick a butt or two, to see the flag run up instead of always down, to see the Marines hit the beach and yell "semper fi" and give them the old John Wayne.

But you cannot do that any more. Nobody can and we can least of all. We need oil and we need allies and we are not, in the eyes of the Iranians, virgins. The shah is here and we supported him when he was in power, and very important men have called him their friend. Still, the anger wells up in you. Somewhere in all of us is a flag that never touches ground.

But as the students, marched, as they cursed the country that has given them hospitality and praised the man who hates our guts, you had to wonder about them -- about their faith in us. Their rhetoric aside, they were saying they really knew America. They knew they could march and they knew the cops would protect them and not arrest them, and they knew that in America you can give the country the finger and still keep your rights. It is not, to say the least, that way in Iran.

So they marched. They yelled and they screamed and they carried their signs. And in my head I heard "America the Beautiful" and I thought, honest I did, that I wish my grandmother had lived to see this. "Only in America," she would have said.

And she would have been right.