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A Mother And the President
A woman lost her son in Iraq and won't leave George W. Bush alone until he sees her. Who is she, and why is she stirring such emotion?
BY AMANDA RIPLEY IN CRAWFORD
Posted Sunday, Aug. 14, 2005
Cindy Sheehan, 48, is not a natural-born revolutionary. She speaks in a high, almost childlike voice. She says like as often as any teenager, as in, "This whole thing was like so freaking spur of the moment." When her supporters gather to discuss strategy, Sheehan is not to be found in the circle of beach chairs; she is 50 yards up the road, doing yet another interview, hugging yet another stranger. But here she is, the mother of Casey, 24, who died in Iraq last year, and now the central character in the strange, swirling protest she initiated two miles down the road from President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas.
Sheehan is unflinching about why she's here. She says George W. Bush killed her son. She demands that U.S. troops come home now, and she insists on telling that to Bush personally. She speaks without caveat. "I'm not afraid of anything since my son was killed," she says. But she has never been one to move quietly through life. Father Michael McFadden, a priest she once worked for, calls her "very defiant, very stubborn, very strong willed" when dealing with authority. When a soldier from the local base comes by to argue with her, she asks him to go for a walk. She puts her arm around him. Soon they are hugging. Her friends call her Attila the Honey.
Back home in California, her family is imploding under its grief. Sheehan lost her job at Napa County Health and Human Services because of all her absences, she says. Husband Pat, 52, couldn't bear having Casey's things at home and put most of them in storage. "We grieved in totally different ways," Cindy says. "He wanted to grieve by distracting himself. I wanted to immerse myself." A car tinkerer, he added two 1969 VW Bugs to his collection recently and diverted some of his sorrow into them. The couple separated in June.
Daughter Carly, 24, wrote a poem that begins, "Have you ever heard the sound of a mother screaming for her son?" Surviving son Andy, 21, supports his mother in principle but recently sent her a long e-mail imploring her "to come home because you need to support us at home," he says. Casey's aunt Cherie Quartarolo e-mailed a California radio station last week to rebuke Cindy, writing, "She appears to be promoting her own personal agenda at the expense of her son's good name."
Outside her family circle, Sheehan's crusade has been just as divisive. Conservative commentator Michelle Malkin has called the protesters "terrorist-sympathizing agitators." But at a time when 56% of the respondents in a CNN poll say they think the war is going poorly, this wandering mother has tapped into a national well of worry: Are our troops dying in vain? "People were looking for something to do," says Sheehan. Now they are calling to see whether they can sign over their Social Security checks to her.
Still, it is hard to know when a flash-fire protest in a prairie will turn into something more. Surely it didn't happen when Martin Sheen called (which was on Day 5). Nor did it when the police donned riot gear, as they did on Day 7, when the President's motorcade came within 100 feet of Sheehan's ramshackle encampment. (Riot gear is casual fashion for police at protests these days, after all.) Attendance figures--about 100 by midweek--did not break any records either
And the White House noted that Bush met with Sheehan too, two months after Casey died. She had always had misgivings about the war, and she says she had mixed feelings about Bush's demeanor at the meeting, but she kept quiet. When more information came out about the planning for the war, however, she started to feel utterly betrayed.
But White House aides say they worry about the precedent, should Bush see Sheehan again. "If the President meets with her, does he have to meet with every protester who camps out in Crawford or in Lafayette Park [in Washington]?" asks a Bush aide. "Does he have a second meeting with every mother or wife who asks for one?"
A fair question. There is a risk, though, that Sheehan's ideas will never stop spreading down the road. In 1965 a group of just 25 antiwar protesters demonstrated outside President Lyndon Johnson's Texas ranch. Within a few years, the handful had turned into a movement.
But the people who did come made it seem different from other antiwar spasms. A retired postal worker drove from San Diego for 26 hours. A local soldier who had just returned from Iraq appeared with his mom. And a truck driver--a former Marine who had never been to an antiwar protest before--decided to pull his 18-wheeler full of frozen pizzas into Crawford just to shake Sheehan's hand.
At her roadside uprising, Sheehan feels only muted satisfaction. Sitting in a van, momentarily insulated from followers and other reporters, she says more than once that she feels like a failure. Even if the troops came back tomorrow, it would still be too late for her son. "I really failed Casey. I really did," she says, tearing up. Throughout his childhood in California, Casey and his mother were close. An altar boy for 10 years, Casey enlisted in 2000 hoping to make a career as a military chaplain's assistant. He had decided to wait to have sex until he was married. "He took lots of heat for that in the Army. Pat and I always wondered why he would even tell anyone he was still a virgin," Sheehan wrote on TruthOut.org "but he did."
Casey Sheehan was killed in Sadr City on April 4, 2004, less than a month after he arrived in Iraq as a humvee mechanic. He had gone out on a voluntary mission to rescue injured soldiers when his unit was ambushed. Six other soldiers died with him. Says his brother Andy: "He lived to help people, and he died helping people." On the day he died, Cindy saw a burning humvee on CNN and says she knew instinctively that her son was among the dead.
Sheehan's impulsive decision to come to Crawford--with five people, some chairs and no flashlights--has spawned a small phenomenon. A busload of counterprotesters, organized by a conservative radio personality in Dallas, arrived to sing God Bless America. A Japanese peace-activist group donated money for Porta Potties. Chad Griffin, a Los Angeles--based p.r. agent who worked in the Clinton White House, came up with the idea of cutting an ad featuring Sheehan's plea to speak with Bush. With $12,000 in donations, the ad is running in Crawford.
That's exactly the kind of move the White House hopes will play into its hands. Once Sheehan starts acting like a politician, say some Republicans and even some Democrats, she will become just another voice in the debate--easy, in other words, to neutralize. But until then, Bush's team cannot fire back hard, as it usually does when it is criticized. Sheehan must be handled, as an adviser to the President put it, "very carefully." And that's what it has been struggling to do. Top officials went out to talk to Sheehan but failed to appease her. The President acknowledged her obliquely last week in response to a question about Iraq, saying he shared her pain. The White House, quantifying his compassion, put out a list of the meetings Bush has held with families. (He has met with the relatives of 272 deceased U.S. soldiers so far.) A senior aide who was present at many of the meetings estimates that a little less than 10% of the relatives tell Bush their loved ones died in vain. "He's had a couple wives who were very upset," says the aide. "They didn't yell at him or hit him or anything like that. But on more than one occasion, they've made very clear their position."