“Tens of thousands” were predicted, because nobody dared hope for more. Saturday’s anti-war march in Washington wasn’t tied to an event (like the Republican National Convention) nor to any specific initiative in Congress, nor was it led by any recognized national leader; and it seemed like Hurricanes Katrina and Rita would surely distract–and subtract from–the protesters. But hundreds of thousands came. Was it 300,000, as organizers later claimed? Maybe. The only person I know who walked the route (backward) in an effort to count estimated 225,000. But I don’t know how you count it when the crowd comes and goes over a period of five or six hours, marches fitfully–because it was gridlock on every street around the White House–and gathers in between times in multiple places.

Suffice it to say that the crowd was huge, it was mellow, it skewed older and grayer (and whiter), and it struck me that I was looking at the America that still reads and grapples with events and their meaning, as opposed to just mouthing the latest punchlines from Rush or Sean. I guess I think that because our signs were so studied. (As in, “Momma Bush–Now We Know Where Your Son’s Indifference Comes From.”)

On the other hand, you gotta love our “Billionaires for Bush,” now gathering donations for the “Rebuild Trent Lott’s House Fund.” (And singing “All We Are Saying, Is Give War a Chance.”)

My takeaway: There is an army ready to march behind an anti-war candidate for president, or for any other office actually. (Look what happened in Ohio when Paul Hackett ran for Congress.)

But on a main stage at the Ellipse (below the Washington Monument) that failed ever to be the center of attraction, there were no presidential candidates, no could-be contenders even, and no recognizable names of any sort except a tired Jesse Jackson and Gold Star military mother Cindy Sheehan, who is gutsy but is not even an interesting, let alone compelling, speaker.

Elsewhere in the crowd, the biggest names were singers Joan Baez and Harry Belafonte (who told a conference held by the Congressional Black Caucus last week, “I am looking at the ravages of the Democratic party and I am trying to decide: Is there anything worth salvaging?”) and California Congresswomen Barbara Lee and Lynn Woolsey.

Listening to a minor union official go on, from the stage, about the need for solidarity with the workers of Haiti, Palestine and Iraq–and no doubt there is such a need, but people, please!–I realized that what our army needs is a Eugene McCarthy.

Gene McCarthy, the teacher and poet who was also a United States senator from Minnesota, took on President Johnson over the Vietnam War in the 1968 Democratic primaries, and when McCarthy won in New Hampshire, it was the beginning of the end for both. McCarthy gave the anti-war movement a respected leader; more than that, he gave it the discipline to be serious with, and be taken seriously by, the voters. Kids everywhere, though otherwise inclined to flip off a warmongering Amerika, cut their hair and tidied their appearance so as to be “Clean for Gene.”

Well, we’re clean enough these days, and we’re almost too well behaved, but we don’t have a leader who commands the public’s (and its mainstream media’s) respect. And Cindy, bless her heart, is increasingly miscast as she tries to fill that role.

So, I thought, where’s our Gene McCarthy? And then I thought, if he or she shows up, the door to the Democratic party is open–its ravages anyway–and through it the presidency in 2008 could open as well. We’re like Lincoln’s Army in 1862, charged up and ready to take down the Confederacy (sorry, Dixie), but led by supercautious Gen. George McClellan, which if you’ve forgotten was kind of like having John Kerry up in front, come to think of it.

Naturally, I thought immediately of our own John Edwards. Johnny could be our Gene. Yes, like Kerry he voted to let Bush start the war, and he also voted against giving the president a blank check for $80 billion to piss away afterward. But Johnny did not say any of the amazingly stupid things Kerry said later, like reminding people that he voted for the check before he voted against it, and saying 18 months into the occupation that, sure, he would still vote for the war even knowing what a friggin’ disaster Bush would make of it.

And Johnny’s got the star power. More than that, I think he’s got the heart.

As it happens, though, I’d called Edwards’ One America Committee a week earlier to see if an interview with him could be arranged. His spokeswoman called right back, but when I told her I’d be asking about Iraq, she sounded doubtful–busy schedule, traveling so much, you know the type of thing. She’d check. Haven’t heard from her since.

And from the oneamericacommittee.org Web site, you would never know we were even fighting in Iraq except for the sympathetic letter Elizabeth Edwards wrote to Cindy Sheehan a few weeks back, which on further review says only that “it is better that the President hear different opinions” without, however, mentioning what such opinions would be.

Perhaps Edwards departed from his script, but if not he managed to give a talk in Washington last week about “Restoring the American Dream” and without once using the word “Iraq.”

Oh, well.

Then there’s Hillary. She could be our Gene. Or Jeanie. But Sen. Clinton “On the Issues,” at Clinton.senate.gov, lists 16 subjects, none of which is Iraq. Under “Foreign Policy,” she does observe that our troops are there, salutes their bravery, and underlines the need to ensure that they have the resources “to get the job done.”

Hillary, it’s clear, wants to stay the course.

So if Tom Hayden, now a California state senator and a leading opponent of the Vietnam War back in the day, is right that the Democratic Party is “slowly, painfully, pathetically” beginning its reconsideration of Iraq, put Hillary–and the Democratic Leadership Council crowd she’s aligned with–in the pathetic category.

Then there’s Wesley Clark, who seemed to be against the war in ’04, though it was never clear what he’d have done. Gen. Clark, on his WesPAC Web site–securingamerica.com–prominently features an article from Roll Call about his meeting with the Out of Iraq caucus of the House of Representatives last week. “Avoid specific timetables for withdrawal and focus instead on … strategies for success that rely not on the military, but on diplomacy,” Roll Call quotes Clark as saying.

Your choice: Painful? Or pathetic?

I’ll spare you Joe Biden, Tom Vilsack, Mark Warner, Bill Richardson and–have I forgotten anybody who’s a possible ’08 Democratic presidential nominee? Dennis Kucinich is still out there, but seems to be taking a back seat these days following his recent marriage. That’s allowed Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold to become the darling of the anti-war crowd by mildly suggesting that the country should consider maybe setting a flexible target date for withdrawal–one that could always be extended if it didn’t work out–of the end of 2006. To start withdrawing.

Can you hear the crowds cheering?

This is ridiculous, Democrats. The country is against this war.

And you wonder why Ralph Nader keeps running?

It’s time to listen to former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, the Vietnam War hero who wants to pin Bush’s failure on him, get the heck out of Iraq, and get on with the job of rooting out Al Qaeda and rebuilding America. We quoted him in the Indy last week. He’s worth quoting again: “It is time to bring our troops home. … Iraq does not have to be another Vietnam.”

Remember how Cleland said he’s seen the movie before, so he knows how it ends? I saw it, too. It ends when a Gene McCarthy shows up with the guts to lead the opposition forces. Where’s our Gene?

E-mail CitiZen at rjgeary@mac.com.