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Staying away from a mother and a question


David Sarasohn, Newhouse News Service
Minneapolis Star Tribune
August 18, 2005

It's hard to believe that the Bush administration let the Cindy Sheehan situation get to this point. You'd almost think it was out of touch.

Sheehan, of course, is the California mother who set up near Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, and demanded that the president come out and tell her why her son died in Iraq, and just what is the "noble cause" that the president often invokes.

Actually, last week she was a California mother. This week she's a movement.

Partly that's because of the president's decision to dismiss her importance, a strategy that didn't work with the Iraqi insurgency either.

A brief encounter early on -- even if tricky for a president who meets only with screened and selected audiences -- would have diminished the story, or maybe even turned it around.

Instead, the White House adopted a strategy of presidential motorcades whizzing past her -- which, not surprisingly, somehow didn't work. And now that Sheehan has declared that Bush is a "maniac" who "murdered my son," it's hard to imagine a useful conversation between them, even with refreshments.

The Bushies doubtless hope that such statements from Sheehan will discredit her, but it may not happen soon. Her comments in a telephone press conference Tuesday included denunciations of "warmongering" and "imperialism," but also arguments more shrewdly crafted than anything heard from Democratic senators:

"We've been in Iraq for two years, and our troops still don't have the proper body armor and the proper vehicle armor," Sheehan told one questioner, "and I'm accused of not supporting the troops because I want them to come back alive?" Maybe Bush was right to shrink from a conversation.

And, unstoppably, "The movement has to focus on people who have had skin in the game," people who have lost people in Iraq. "How can you argue with our hearts?"

Hearts may not be the ideal organ for making foreign policy. But in a war that Americans' heads tell them isn't working -- a poll indicates only about 35 percent of people believe it's being handled well -- hearts have a particular power.

"Whether you agree or disagree with every part, or any part, of what Cindy wants to say, you know it is better that the president hear different opinions, particularly from those with such a deep and personal interest in the decisions of our government," Elizabeth Edwards, wife of Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards, wrote Tuesday.

"Today, another voice would be helpful. Cindy Sheehan can be that voice. She has earned the right to be that voice."

The press conference announced that Wednesday night would see more than 1,000 vigils around the country in support of Sheehan.

Somehow, the Bush White House never saw any of this coming. Somehow, as it built, the president offered an almost breathtaking explanation of how he had to manage his time:

"I think the people want the president to be in a position to make good, crisp decisions and to stay healthy. And part of my being is to be outside exercising. So I'm mindful of what goes on around me. On the other hand, I'm also mindful that I've got a life to live and will do so."

Which would have been the ideal response if the key national concern this August was whether the president was getting enough exercise. Instead, even within the administration there's a realization that the war is not turning out as planned or promised, and that it needs a new direction.

"What we expected to achieve was never realistic given the timetable or what unfolded on the ground," a "senior official involved in policy since the 2003 invasion" told the Washington Post last week. "We are in a process of absorbing the factors of the situation we're in and shedding the unreality that dominated at the beginning."

So maybe a mother whose son died under the now-abandoned unreality can ask which reality applies now.

And maybe it's not so surprising that the Bushies have let the Sheehan problem turn out this badly. Which part of the Iraq situation have they handled well?

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