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The grieving mother who took on George Bush

Cindy Sheehan's soldier son Casey was killed near Baghdad. Now her one-woman protest at the gates of the US president's Texas ranch has become a metaphor for a nation's increasing unease about involvement in an unwinnable conflict. By Rupert Cornwell
Published: 16 August 2005
The Independent (UK)

Something strange is taking place deep in the heart of Texas, where the President of the United States is holed up at his Prairie Chapel ranch, a few miles from the town of Crawford. There, in the space of a few days, a middle-aged Californian, whose soldier son died in Iraq, has become arguably the best-known woman in the US.

On one level, the attention generated by 48-year-old Cindy Sheehan - from the hitherto obscure town of Vacaville, an hour's drive north-east of San Francisco - merely proves the old adage that, like nature, the news business cannot tolerate a vacuum.

Obedient to the tradition that an American President must be covered 24 hours a day, 365 days a year (including holidays) dozens of White House reporters are having to spend this sweltering August on the plains of central Texas as George Bush takes his customary extended summer vacation.

Normally, hard news barely extends beyond barbecue fund raisers, a few minutely choreographed but content-free trips to "meet ordinary Americans," and the odd Presidential excursion to a little league baseball game. This year however manna has descended in the desert for the media mini-horde.

What started as a one-woman protest has turned into metaphor for a country's growing disillusion at an increasingly unwinnable war. Ms Sheehan, personable, sincere, articulate, and bereaved of a son, has turned into the human face of this disillusion.

The Lone Star State too has been contributing an extra dash of colour - most notably on Sunday when Larry Mattlage, a local farmer who rents his land to networks for a view of the President's 1,600 acre spread, fired his shotgun twice into the air, sending reporters into a frenzy and an ever-nervous Presidential secret service into apoplexy.

He claimed he was merely warming up for the dove hunting season: "I ain't threatening nobody, and I ain't pointing a gun at nobody," he said. "This is Texas." But in the next breath Mr Mattlage made clear the real source of his exasperation, the human doves at Ms Sheehan's camp which is now in to its 10th day. "Five weeks of this is too much," he complained, referring to Ms Sheehan's vow to remain throughout the President's holiday unless he talks to her.

But her "camp-in" is anything but a hollow summer stunt. Never has the Iraq war been so unpopular. Most Americans now think the US-led invasion of 2003 was a mistake, and by a margin of almost two to one disapprove of Mr Bush's handling of it. Like Ms Sheehan, they want some or all of the 138,000 US troops in Iraq brought home, and soon.

Even Republicans are becoming queasy at the implications for next year's mid-term elections, if the present violence and bloodshed continues. A telling sign is how even conservative talk-show hosts such as Bill O'Reilly of Fox News, normally the most reliable of cheerleaders for the administration, have become withering in criticism of Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary.

Casey Sheehan, 24, was killed in a firefight when his unit was attacked by Shia militias south of Baghdad on 4 April 2004, just a fortnight after he arrived in Iraq. When he died, the public mood about the war was starting to waver, but was still broadly supportive. That is no longer.

The loss of 14 Marines in the roadside bombing near Haditha on 3 August - the deadliest incident yet of its kind - brought home as never before the relentlessly rising cost of a conflict in which almost 1,850 US soldiers have now died.

Three days after Haditha, Cindy Sheehan set up camp at a junction in the road three miles south of the President's ranch - as near as the Secret Service would permit. As the national media latched on to the story, "Camp Casey" grew. By Sunday evening more than 100 people were camped there, including some who had driven 1,000 miles or more. A few leave, but others arrive to take their place. For several hours during the day, their numbers were swollen by hundreds of anti-war protesters.

Small white crosses bearing the names of dead soldiers make an impromptu roadside shrine. Banners have sprouted on the trees, while supporters across the country send daily consignments of flowers. Half a dozen dark green Porta-Potties now give a temporary permanence to the scene - as have the local police officers urging sightseers to move on. At least one celebrity has shown up too, in the person of Viggo Mortensen of Lord of the Rings fame.

As public attention has grown, Ms Sheehan's protest has acquired a highly-professional veneer. She is a co-founder of Gold Star Families for Peace, an anti-war group that has demanded the impeachment of Mr Bush, and is no media neophyte. A PR firm from Washington has is on the spot to co-ordinate and maximise press coverage.

On Saturday - the day after Mr Bush's motorcade swept past Camp Casey without stopping, en route to a $2m fundraiser for Texas Republicans - Gold Star Families even spent $15,000 on a television advert. In the advert, Ms Sheehan declares: "All I wanted was an hour out his extended vacation time, but he's refused to meet with me and other military families. We just want honest answers."

Meanwhile Joe Trippi, the 2004 Presidential campaign manager of Howard Dean, has organised pro-Cindy blogs, while Michael Moore, director of Fahrenheit 9/11 and a professional anti-Bush agitator, has made over his website to the cause. The protest moreover may be spreading: a rally in support of Camp Casey was scheduled for yesterday afternoon in Union Square, Manhattan.

The stakes are growing, and supporters of Mr Bush are mounting their own counter offensive. Across the road from Ms Sheehan and her followers, more than 200 supporters of the President staged their own rally on Sunday, holding signs branding Ms Sheehan a traitor. Bill O'Reilly's diatribes against Mr Rumsfeld have not stopped him labelling her "treasonous," while others have seized upon divisions within the Sheehan family.

Ms Sheehan and her husband separated because of their differences over the war and her increasing activism after Casey's death. Last week, some of her in-laws issued a bitter statement accusing Ms Sheehan of "promoting her own personal agenda and notoriety at the expense of her son's good name." Other opponents have noted that she did indeed meet Mr Bush, in June 2004 and seemed then well satisfied with the encounter. So why, they ask, has she suddenly changed her tune, accusing the President of being callous and uncaring when he met her? Ms Sheehan explains that her judgement a years ago was still blinded by grief. The argument is squalid and demeaning. But it is a sign of just how nasty this fight may yet become.

In public, the White House is hoping to ride out the embarrassment. The day after Ms Sheehan arrived, it sent out Stephen Hadley, the President's national security adviser to talk to her. She described the meeting as "pointless". But the White House plainly reckons it has done enough. Mr Bush last week said he had thought "long and hard" about Ms Sheehan's position.

But there has been no indication he will bow to her demand for a face-to-face session - at least not in circumstances that smack of a media circus.

Whether this "do-nothing" strategy succeeds depends on events. A PR battle with a grieving mother who has lost a son in a controversial war and who comes across so well on television is one no President would relish. On the other hand, even a White House press corps with little else to report may become bored. Perhaps some new crisis at home or abroad will sweep Camp Casey off the front pages. Or an encampment of war supporters may sprout forth, as a rival focus for the media.

Perhaps the growing professionalism of the Sheehan movement will have the public come to see it as just another political campaign, akin to the "Swiftboat" controversy that engulfed Vietnam war hero John Kerry before the 2004 election, or the current row surrounding the leak of the name of CIA agent Valerie Plame.

On the other hand, another Haditha might transform Ms Sheehan's protest into a national movement. A few dozen more US servicemen dead, and yet more Americans would be wondering why on earth their young soldiers are fighting and dying in Iraq, at the hands of an insurgency that seems to draw strength and inspiration from the US military presence. Mr Bush's ratings would decline further, and "Camp Casey" might go down in history as the moment when this President lost America and, with it, his war.

Cindy Sheehan herself is under few illusions about the limits of her mission, how even she may not escape Andy Warhol's "15 minutes of fame" rule. "Something might happen and this won't be the story anymore," she admits. But I don't want this to end. Ending the war is the story."



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