The spirit of the 60s returned to the streets of Washington at the weekend with a massive protest aimed at stopping the war in Iraq. The rally, the centerpiece of a day of worldwide demonstrations, was the most impressive show of opposition to President George Bush's policies in the 16 months of global crisis.
Mr Bush was at the presidential country retreat, Camp David, while the hordes trampled the National Mall close to the back garden of the White House. But the roars of the crowd will have reached him even there, not so much because of the numbers of the protesters, but because of a growing sense that public opinion in general may be shifting in their direction.
While the rally was taking place, a new Time-CNN poll was released, showing the president's approval rating down to 53%, its lowest in any survey since September 11 2001, with barely half supporting his foreign policy and only 27% believing the economy will improve in the next 12 months. Traditionally, national pessimism dethrones presidents.
On the Mall there was great pessimism about the future of mankind, but the optimism about the future of the cause was palpable. After a year of chuntering, the president's opponents have begun to find a means of expression. With the Democratic party still fearful of directly opposing Mr Bush, it is starting on the streets rather than inside the political system.
While the hundreds of thousands marching in Washington and San Francisco grabbed most of the headlines, small town America was also protesting. Here demonstrators gather outside the Richard Nixon Library in Yorba Linda., Calif., in protest of a possible war with Iraq, Saturday, Jan. 18, 2003. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
In the absence of turnstiles and ticket sales, exact numbers on these occasions are notoriously elusive. Police did not quarrel with the organizers' estimate of 500,000, though that seemed excessive. Certainly, there can hardly have been less than 100,000, especially bearing in mind the day's one undeniable statistic: the temperature never rose above -4C (25F), and the grass in front of the Capitol where everyone gathered was more like tundra. Many local people appeared briefly, heard a couple of the three dozen speeches, then retreated to their central heating.
Some people, however, had come too far to make that an option. Adam Dekeyrel traveled down with two busloads of protesters on the 22-hour journey from Rochester, Minnesota. He insisted they were the vanguard of popular feeling: "There's a lot of people staying at home afraid to say anything," he said. "They're not likely to get involved because they don't know how to get involved."
Other coaches came from across the eastern half of the US, with 22 from the small state of Vermont alone. There were protests in San Francisco (organizers' estimate: 200,000 people; police estimate: 55,000) and in smaller cities, most of them as frigid as Washington, across the country.
There was a small pro-Bush counter-demonstration on the Mall involving about three dozen people. There were no clashes - only two arrests were reported all day - but the minority did somehow look colder than everyone else. They invoked the patriotic dead by standing near the Vietnam war memorial, but many soldiers who fought in Vietnam were also there, on the other side of the argument.
"In the history of the US we do not start or initiate conflict," said Mike Blankenship of North Carolina, a former marine. "This runs counter to everything that's American."
"We did at least go into Vietnam with the idea that we were fighting for liberty, even if it was a bad idea," said Charlie Shobe of Maryland. "This one there's no doubt we're going in for oil."
The No Blood for Oil theme ran through many of the placards held by the demonstrators. Others invoked the memory of Martin Luther King, whose birthday is celebrated as a public holiday in the US today.
The anti-war rally was organized by International Answer (Act Now To Stop War and End Racism), whose leading light is Ramsey Clark, himself on the far side of the fence during the Vietnam war when he was Lyndon Johnson's attorney-general. Answer was organizing small and unfocused protests less than three weeks after the September 11 attacks, but its appeal has grown exponentially since Iraq took center stage. There was a big protest in Washington last October, almost ignored by the media. Stung by criticism of their coverage then, the main US papers yesterday gave this event lavish coverage.
Despite Mr Clark's presence, Answer's roots are on the extreme left of American politics, and they have had trouble attracting frontline politicians to their platforms. The main speakers in Washington were Ron Kovic, the anti-war activist who was author of Born on the Fourth of July, Jessica Lange, the actor, and the Rev Jesse Jackson, the bandwagon-jumper. The headliners in San Francisco were the 60s folk singer Joan Baez and Martin Sheen, who plays the president in The West Wing but does not aspire to be one.
The next breakthrough will come if one of the real Democratic aspirants for the presidency chooses to take over the Sheen role. The Rev Al Sharpton, a declared candidate but not a serious one, was a speaker on the Mall. However, it is no longer unthinkable that, say, John Kerry, the Massachusetts senator and Vietnam veteran, might be emboldened enough by the polls to assume leadership of the anti-war movement.
The president's iron grip on Americans' patriotic impulses is undoubtedly weakening. As one anti-war poster in the Mall put it: "It's OUR flag too."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003