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A grieving mother waits for an answer


August 11, 2005
Los Angeles Times
Margaret Carlson

I DIDN'T THINK Cindy Sheehan, the mother waiting on that dusty Texas road for a chance to ask President Bush why her son died in Iraq, was having much effect.

Then I saw her being "Swift-boated" like John Kerry, whose medals and Purple Hearts were all a mistake.

Sheehan, word went out, is a flip-flopper. She'd once accepted the condolences of the president and there was an article in her local paper, which quickly found its way to reporters, to prove it. In it, Sheehan was quoted as saying that Bush wanted "freedom for the Iraqis," felt "some pain for our loss" and that he was "a man of faith." All true, and not at all at odds with what she's saying now, which is that the war is not a "noble" cause, as Bush would have it, and that no one else's child should die in it.

What that excerpt from her Vacaville paper, provided to the Drudge Report, conveniently left out was the part about the family's decision to behave in a decorous way on a solemn occasion, despite their feelings about the war.

As she waited for Bush near his ranch in Crawford this week, Sheehan recalled that first encounter with her president, two months after strangers knocked at the door to say her son, Casey, a 24-year-old Army specialist, had been killed in an ambush in Sadr City. She was still in shock at the time of the meeting and didn't know how to act, she said. Afterward, she didn't want to tell the local reporter how let down she felt by a president who behaved like he was at a social event, who called her "Mom" and didn't seem to know the name or gender of her child, referring to him only as her "loved one."

Even hardened reporters can be flummoxed by Bush. It's not hard to picture Sheehan dazed by him as he mixed up his styles — guy next door, president, the "mission accomplished" commander in chief — with that of a somber undertaker invoking the "loved one" a few too many times. You can picture Sheehan, a small-town mom with good manners, not wanting to disappoint the folks back home with too much candor.

That time is gone, as Sheehan taps into a growing majority of Americans who wonder if the president gets it. That majority now has its own song (the Rolling Stones' "Sweet Neo Con"), its own candidate (Iraq war veteran and Democrat Paul Hackett, who nearly upset the favorite in a Republican stronghold in a special House election in Ohio) and a concession by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (the "war on terror" has become "the global struggle against violent extremism").

Sheehan and others trying to get to Bush's ranch were forced by county police to walk in a three-foot-deep ditch along the side of road and stop five miles short. She ended up pitching a small tent in a tiny patch of shade.

Sheehan has two great advantages: It's the August dog days of news, and she didn't set up in front of the White House. There she would be competing with anti-nuclear, anti-fluoride and anti-globalism protesters. All around her sit satellite uplinks and reporters, finally with something worthier of their attention than Rafael Palmeiro's steroids and Katherine Harris' makeup.

Sheehan is part of a small group of parents who have lost children in Iraq and hate the war. There is a much larger group of parents who believe that Bush is doing everything he can and that he couldn't have anticipated an insurgency whose bombs and members would grow more sophisticated and deadly by the day. For them, their children's deaths were not in vain and most have disdain for all who hold the other view.

Members of Sheehan's tiny Gold Star Families for Peace believe that the president was wrong and is now clueless about what to do. They have stepped into the abyss of regret and senselessness that comes with knowing a child died for a mistake.

Sheehan reminds me of Lila Lipscomb, the Flint, Mich., mother who lost a son and got lost amid less compelling material in Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11." Lipscomb was an ardent supporter of the military who was devastated because she had encouraged her son to join up to get the education she couldn't afford to give him.

After a "9/11" screening for press and politicians in Washington, Lipscomb said a few words. When the lights came up, the audience spent a long time picking up its things. No one wanted to be seen crying, especially when our privileged positions protect us from ever having to endure what Lipscomb had.

On Friday, Bush will have to pass by Sheehan in his climate-controlled car with its tinted windows, or forgo a fundraiser nearby. He lives in a bubble — his prescreened audiences applaud him for platitudes and for his resolve. He goes nowhere alone. He took Dick Cheney to his interview with the 9/11 commission.

He isn't refusing to see Sheehan because he's callous but because he's like those of us listening to Lipscomb. Alone with Sheehan, he might find himself crying over something his privileged position means he will never have to endure.

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