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Mr. Bush, let's talk


By Joan Vennochi, Boston Globe Columnist | August 9, 2005

AMERICA HAS a president, not a king. But just like royalty, the nation's commander in chief can keep his distance from the common man or woman.

Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a son who died in Iraq, is camped out in Crawford, Texas, trying to get a face-to-face meeting with the vacationing George W. Bush. She wants to tell the president that he should pull all American troops out of Iraq. Her son, Casey, was killed at age 24 in the Sadr City section of Baghdad on April 4, 2004.
The police blocked her a few miles from the Bush ranch. On Saturday, two Bush administration officials were dispatched to speak to her. But Sheehan says she will not leave until she sees the president. ''I plan on staying here the entire month of August or until he comes out to talk to me," she told USA Today.

Democracy in America begins with a very intimate connection between the people and those who seek to represent them. In the initial quest for votes, those running for elective office, including the presidency, will talk and meet with virtually anyone. There is no coffee hour too small to attend nor person too humble to approach. Once the vote-seeker wins office, it's a different story. The walls go up. The doors lock. The distance grows.

It happens, to some degree, at every level of government, although, obviously, the higher the office, the higher the wall. It is so much easier to conduct the people's business without dealing directly with the people, especially with disagreeable people.

Once a politician takes up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, much business is conducted through intermediaries. Intermediaries, via the press, ask questions. Intermediaries -- press secretaries and underlings -- convey the president's thoughts. Occasionally, the president holds a press conference. For the most part, contact with average voters is reduced to ceremonial photo opportunities with political supporters.

This is not a Bush White House phenomenon, although Bush is perfecting the art of presidential isolation. During the 2004 presidential contest, Bush's campaign events were packed with supporters and screened for dissidents. Since his January 2005 inauguration, he held four press conferences. During his first term, he held the fewest solo press conferences of any president in the television age.

Bush also escapes frequently to his 1,600-acre ranch. He is currently immersed in a five-week stay away from Washington, the longest presidential retreat in at least 36 years, according to The Washington Post.

A presidential spokesman said the time in Crawford is a time for Bush to ''shed his coat and tie and meet with folks in the heartland and hear what's on their minds."

This week, the president will meet with his economic advisers and foreign policy team, go to a fundraising lunch, and attend a Little League championship game. So far, Sheehan is not on his agenda. But he knows what is on her mind, and that is his excuse for declining to meet with her.

Sheehan and other families of fallen troops met with Bush two months after her son's death. Since then, she has made her antiwar feelings clear. She speaks around the country against the war. After Bush was reelected, she and other protesters on Pennsylvania Avenue turned their backs on Bush's motorcade.

According to press reports, Sheehan said she decided to come to Crawford after Bush said once again that US troops are dying for a noble cause and the mission must be completed. Now, she says, she wants to ask the president, ''What did my son die for?"

Sheehan told the AP that the Bush advisers dispatched to talk to her told her ''we are in Iraq because they believed Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, that the world's a better place with Saddam gone, and that we're making the world a safer place with what we're doing over there."

She said that one of the advisers said that Bush ''really does care." Her reply: ''If he does care, why doesn't he come out and talk to me?"

Driven by personal grief, Sheehan does not accept the commonly accepted boundaries between the people and the person who occupies the Oval Office. With nothing to lose since she lost her son, she is barging into personal presidential space and posing rude questions.

How long before more Americans join her and the clamor invades the Bush castle -- and that other castle known as Congress?

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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