For more than a year, a modest bungalow known as “Peace House,” located a few miles from President Bush’s ranch, has served as a headquarters for anti-war activists. It is lonely work, with little more than a skeleton crew on hand much of the time.
Then Cindy Sheehan hit town.
The 48-year old mother of Army Spc. Casey Sheehan, who was killed in an ambush in Baghdad, Iraq, last year, is consumed by the kind of grief that turns into a furious determination to do something — in her case, to confront the president and force him to explain why her son died.
Now, in the space of just a few days, what started out as a seemingly quixotic personal mission has become something of a phenomenon. Media are swarming around Sheehan; leading liberal and anti-war activists are parachuting in to try to make her their long-sought voice; and political experts in both parties are working to assess what role she may have in galvanizing the public’s gathering unhappiness with the increasing American casualties in Iraq.
Anti-war leaders hope that putting the spotlight on Sheehan will motivate Americans who oppose the war, creating a political force strong enough to compel the Bush administration to change course.
MoveOn.organd other liberal groups have rushed to provide support, offering media expertise and attempting to assemble a corps of others who have lost relatives in Iraq or have family members serving there.
Liberal voices have swung into action on the Internet as well. On Wednesday, Democratic media consultant Joe Trippi organized a conference call with Sheehan for bloggers, aiming to garner more publicity. By Wednesday afternoon, “Cindy Sheehan” was the top-ranked search term on Technorati.com, the search engine for blog postings.
The White House, meanwhile, has sought to cope with Sheehan’s vigil without abandoning its strategy for dealing with the families of troops who have died. On a number of occasions, Bush has met with bereaved relatives — including some who have challenged him sharply on the war — but he has done so privately, away from news cameras and reporters.
Sheehan, a Vacaville, Calif., resident who opposed the war even before her son’s death, was a member of one such group in June 2004.
Some of Sheehan’s critics claim she has changed her tune about Bush. The Drudge Report, citing a June 24, 2004, story in Sheehan’s hometown newspaper, wrote on Monday that Sheehan “dramatically changed her account about what happened when she met the commander in chief last summer!”
Sheehan was quoted as saying at the time: “I now know he’s sincere about wanting freedom for the Iraqis. I know he’s sorry and feels some pain for our loss. And I know he’s a man of faith.”
In response, Vacaville Reporter editor Diane Barney on Tuesday wrote an article that criticized the Drudge account, saying that it failed to note Sheehan’s stated reservations about the war before and after the meeting with Bush.
“Clearly, Cindy Sheehan’s outrage was festering even then,” Barney wrote.
As for Sheehan, the Institute for Public Accuracy issued a statement on Monday in which Sheehan was quoted as saying she was “still in shock” at the time.
“We had decided not to criticize the president then because during that meeting he assured us ‘this is not political.’ And I believed him,” Sheehan was quoted as saying.
“Then, during the Republican National Convention, he exploited those meetings to justify what he was doing.”
Sheehan, a co-founder of the anti-war group Gold Star Families for Peace, has said that she will remain in Crawford until she gets to see Bush face to face.
Until a sudden cloudburst forced her to move to Peace House early yesterday morning, Sheehan had been camping in a tent along a road about two miles from Bush’s Prairie Chapel Ranch. On Saturday, the day she arrived in Crawford, two senior White House aides — national-security adviser Stephen Hadley and deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin — left the ranch to meet with her on a dusty road.
That, she said, was not satisfactory.
By last night, Sheehan had given so many interviews that she was sucking on lozenges to soothe an inflamed throat. Her ears were sore from cradling a telephone. Her media adviser, newly arrived from San Francisco, said Sheehan had developed a fever.
None of that stopped her. Whether talking to newspaper reporters, People magazine or radio and television interviewers — some from as far away as Japan — she was relentlessly on message.
“I don’t believe his phony excuses for the war,” she said of Bush in an interview with a CBS reporter. “I want him to tell me why my son died.
“If he gave the real answer, people in this country would be outraged — if he told people it was to make his buddies rich, that it was about oil … “
Sheehan is certainly not the first to denounce the president over the war. From the beginning, activists have been outspoken in criticizing Bush’s policy and his stated reasons for sending U.S. troops into Iraq.
For the moment however, the personal nature of Sheehan’s protest — with its edge of raw emotion — and the concentration of news media staked out in Crawford, where Bush is spending much of August, have combined to raise her voice above the crowd.
Charlie Cook, an independent political analyst, said: “Anything that focuses media and public attention on Iraq war casualties day after day — particularly [something] that is a good visual for television, like a weeping Gold Star mother — is a really bad thing for President Bush and his administration.
“Americans get a little numb by the numbers of war casualties, but when faces, names and families are added, it has a much greater effect,” he said.
Republican strategist Kellyanne Conway, president of the Washington-based firm The Polling Company, said: “Cindy Sheehan has tapped into a latent but fervent feeling among some in this country who would prefer that we not engage our troops in Iraq. She can tap into what has been an astonishingly silent minority since the end of last year’s presidential contest. It will capture attention.”