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Bush vs. the Mother
On the president's doorstep -- a dead soldier, an aggrieved housewife and the start of something big
By MATT TAIBBI
Crawford, the home of President George W. Bush, is a sun-scorched hole of a backwater Texas town -- a single dreary railroad crossing surrounded on all sides by roasted earth the color of dried dog shit. There are scattered clumps of trees and brush, but all the foliage seems bent from the sun's rays and ready at any moment to burst into flames.
The moaning cattle along the lonely roads sound like they're begging for their lives. The downtown streets are empty. Just as the earth is home to natural bridges, this place is a natural dead end -- the perfect place to drink a bottle of Lysol, wind up in a bad marriage, have your neck ripped out by a vulture.
It is a very unlikely place for a peace movement to be born. But that's exactly what happened a few weeks ago, when an aggrieved war mom named Cindy Sheehan set up camp along the road to the president's ranch and demanded a meeting with the commander in chief.
Sheehan's vigil began on Saturday, August 6th, and was originally a solitary affair. Her twenty-four-year-old son, Casey Sheehan, was killed way back in April 2004, when he was one of eight Marines struck down in an ambush in Baghdad's Sadr City.
Sheehan's demand was that Bush meet with her and explain to her what, exactly, her son had died for. The demand, and the accompanying solitary vigil, began as a simple, powerful, unequivocal political statement -- the unarguably genuine protest of a single grieving individual. It was a quest that began on a moral territory almost beyond argument: How could anyone quibble with a mother who'd lost her son?
But Sheehan quickly became more than just the Next Big Media Thing, a successor to Kobe, Laci and Michael. Her campsite became the epicenter of a national anti-war movement that until recently had been largely forgotten. And by the end of a full week of media insanity, it seemed fit to ask if anything was left of that original simple message -- or if something else had taken its place.
I arrived in Crawford early in the afternoon on Thursday, August 11th, the sixth day of Sheehan's vigil. The campsite, dubbed "Camp Casey," was a small row of tents lining the side of a road cutting through a bleak stretch of singed ranch land, some three miles from the president's compound. There were about a hundred people there when I showed up, a large chunk of them reporters -- whose presence, clearly, the protesters had already adjusted to. Along one row of tents, a small group of sunbathing young activists was trying out a new cheer for KCEN, the local NBC affiliate:
"C! I! N-D-Y! She deserves a reason why!"
On the other side of the camp was Sheehan herself, a tall, deliberate, sad-looking woman with sun-lightened hair and a face red from the afternoon heat. I didn't get within ten feet of her before I was intercepted by a pair of young women from the feminist anti-war organization CodePink. Alicia and Tiffany had apparently assumed the role of press secretaries; Sheehan was already operating on a rigid media schedule.
Throughout my stay in Texas I would run into a steady stream of young volunteers who seemed to consider it a great honor to be able to announce that "Cindy is too busy to talk with you right now." A solemn code of Cindy-reverence quickly became a leitmotif of the scene; preserving the sanctity of Sheehan's naps, meals and Internet time became a principle that the whole compound worked together to uphold.
On my first night at the camp, a protester parked too close to a gully, and her car slipped into a ditch. While a bunch of us tried to extricate it, pushing the car as its wheels spun, one protester leaned over to another.
"Blame George fucking Bush!" he said, pushing.
"I blame George fucking Bush for everything!" was the answer.
They were kidding, but we still didn't get the car out of the ditch that night. If the pre-Sheehan anti-war movement had a problem, it was stuff like this. The movement likes to think of itself as open and inclusive, but in practice it often comes off like a bunch of nerds whose favored recreation is coming up with clever passwords for their secret treehouse. The ostensible political purpose may be ending the war, but the immediate occupation for a sizable percentage of these people always seemed to be a kind of rolling adult tourist attraction called Hating George Bush. Marches become Hate Bush Cruises; vigils, Hate Bush Resorts. Hence the astonishingly wide variety of anti-Bush tees (Camp Casey featured a rare film-fantasy matched set, home at various times to BUSH IS SAURON and DARTH INVADER); the unstoppable flow of Bush-themed folk songs. If you spend any amount of time involved with peace protests, as I have, you very quickly start to notice that Hating the President just seems like a little too much of a fun thing for too many of your brothers-in-arms.
Then again, here as in the rest of America, there's no shortage of folks who spend too much time sick with the opposite disease, Loving the President. In downtown Crawford, the two groups are separated by a Mason-Dixon line. While the anti-Bush protesters congregate at a Zonker Harris-style commune called the Crawford Peace House, the pro-Bush crowd has a meeting place in a giant gift shop called the Yellow Rose.
It's a striking visual scene: On one side of the railroad tracks running through town there's a creaky old house, bedecked with peace signs, that looks like the home of the Partridge family. A few hundred yards away, across the tracks, is the Yellow Rose -- a patriotic storefront drenched in red, white and blue whose entrance is obscured by a Liberty Bell, flanked by two huge stone tablets bearing the Ten Commandments. Together, the two places look like a pair of rides in a Crossfire theme park.
Early on my third day I was browsing in the hat section of the Yellow Rose when a clerk approached me.
"Excuse me," I said, holding up two Old Glory mesh hats. "Which of these do you think looks more American?"
She smiled and walked away. A friendly feeling welled up inside me. Within five minutes I was talking to store owner Bill Johnson, a fanatical Bush devotee with a striking resemblance to frozen-sausage king Jimmy Dean. I introduced myself as a Fox TV booker named Larry Weinblatt and told Bill I wanted to bring Sean Hannity down to do a whole show with Sean standing between the Ten Commandments tablets. Bill was all over the idea.
"We want to have that kind of godlike effect," I said.
"Right," Bill said, nodding.
"Secondly, Sean, when he travels," I said, "he brings his own Nautilus equipment. He pumps iron before he goes on."
"Does he really?"
"Yeah," I said. "We get a lot of demonstrators when Sean does his show, and so what he likes to do, when he finishes the broadcast, he takes his shirt off and flexes his muscles for the crowd. You know, rrrr. . ."
"Is he really built like that?"
"Oh, man, he's huge," I said.
We went on like this for a while. Fifteen minutes later, we wrapped up the negotiations.
"Again," I said, "we'd like to use the bell, the Ten Commandments, that backdrop, some horses, and if you have those good-looking Christian girls, we'll take them, too."
"Whatever you want, we'll do it," Bill said.
We shook hands. From there, I went to the inevitable conservative counterdemonstration, which was organized by Dallas right-wing talk-show reptile Darrell Ankarlo. Sheehan's transformation in the right-wing media from anonymous war mom to the great horned pinko Satan was unusually rapid, even by their standards.
The chief talking points were established within four days after her vigil started: Sheehan was a fame-seeking narcissist, an anti-American traitor who dishonored her dead son (Bill O'Reilly questioned her motives and suggested people might see her actions as treasonous) and a stooge for Michael Moore. This Dallas jock Ankarlo chipped in with a claim that he'd received a series of death threats, some of which, he implied, had come from Sheehan's peaceniks.
There are times when American politics seems like little more than two groups in a fever to prevent each other from trespassing upon their respective soothing versions of unreality. At one point at Camp Casey, an informal poll taken around a campfire revealed that six out of a group of ten protesters, selected at random, believed that the United States government was directly involved in planning the 9/11 bombings. Flabbergasted, I tried to press the issue.
"Do you know how many people would have to be involved in that conspiracy?" I said. "I mean, start with the pilots . . ."
"The planes were flown by remote control," a girl sitting across from me snapped.
But things were no better at Ankarlo's counterdemonstration. Aaron Martin, 31, had never heard the administration say that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, but Martin did remember one thing about Iraq that he said he'd heard "prior to 9/11."
"They had a fuselage," he said. "It was like a 747 fuselage that they use for training purposes for terrorism."
Was there any other reason he believed Iraq was connected to 9/11?
"It's just a general feeling," he said.
Another group I spoke with asked me why I believed Iraq wasn't connected to 9/11. I answered that Saddam Hussein's secular government was a political enemy of the Islamic fundamentalists.
"Well," said Raymond Smith, 42, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend."
He laughed, and the group nodded at me triumphantly.
It was like a scene from Spinal Tap. Three seconds passed.
"But," I said finally, "that doesn't make any sense, does it?"
Everyone shrugged impatiently. Who gives a fuck? We believe what we believe -- and fuck you if you don't like it. The Iraq war is like the sun: No one wants to stare at it too long.
By the time I finally sat down with Sheehan, I was deeply frustrated with all of this, and I was ready to blame her for what had become, in my mind, a noisome exercise in blind chest-puffing on both sides. By the eighth day of her vigil, practically every anti-Bush movement under the sun had wiggled into Crawford to get a piece of the action, and it seemed to me that all had been lost and that Sheehan had allowed the illogic of a media hurricane -- noise for noise's sake -- to take over her protest. Particularly irritating was the sight of a giant school bus bearing the inscription "Free the Cuban Five" parked in front of the Peace House. Jesus, I thought. The Mumia people can't be far behind.
"What's the Cuban Five?" Sheehan asked when we finally sat down, alone.
"They're on the front lawn here . . ."
She shook her head helplessly. She had no idea who they were.
We met in a trailer parked outside the Peace House that someone had volunteered for her use. The trailer-sanctuary added to the movie-star vibe that followed Sheehan around everywhere in Crawford; I half expected to see a director's chair marked MS. SHEEHAN parked out front.
But for all this, Sheehan seemed a very lonely woman. Tall, lanky and clunkily built, with the most common and therefore most tragic of faces -- the forgotten housewife whom life, with all its best joys, has long ago passed by -- Sheehan had begun to move around the compound with a preternatural slowness, like a ghost. She floated, rather than walked, into the trailer. After a week of media madness, she was like a superhero unable to return home after falling into a vat of disfiguring acid. Her past -- the middle-class family life in Vacaville, California, with her four kids and the yellow station wagon they nicknamed the BananaMobile -- all that was gone.
She had been through so much in the past week. In still more proof that red-blue politics often comes before family in this country, her in-laws had released a statement cruelly denouncing her. Her estranged husband, perhaps a coward and perhaps unable to handle the stress, filed for divorce. Revelations about her personal life were spilling into print, and all around the country, heartless creeps like Drudge and Ankarlo were casting themselves as friends and protectors of her fallen son and criticizing her for dishonoring him.
In return for all that, what Sheehan got was this: her own trailer, a couple of weeks' worth of airtime and a bunch of people who called themselves her friends but were really just humping the latest cause. They would probably be moving on soon, and Sheehan would be left with nothing. And meeting her now, I was struck by one more thing: At the end, when it was all over, her son would still be gone. I felt very sorry for her.
"I never knew," she said, sighing. "Not only that I would become the face of the anti-war movement but also that I would become the sacrificial lamb of the anti-war movement."
I asked her if she was referring to all the personal attacks. She nodded.
"But I'd still do it again," she said. "Because it's so important."
Sheehan's political sincerity has been questioned, and in almost every case the charges against her have proved monstrous, calculating and untrue. An example of the kind of thing that's been pinned to her: Matt Drudge blasted her for being a flip-flopper after digging up seemingly pro-Bush Sheehan quotes from a California newspaper after she and other war parents met with the president.
Among those were "That was the gift the president gave us, the gift of happiness, of being together." Drudge implied that Sheehan was referring to the meeting with the president. In fact, what Sheehan was saying was that the real gift Bush gave the families was the opportunity to meet each other, not the president.
Things like this are what Sheehan's detractors are using to describe what they call "Cindy's Political Agenda," but I didn't observe any agenda from Sheehan, just a very tired woman. Like everyone else in anti-war circles, Sheehan does sometimes speak in the clubby language of Camp Bush Hater -- but when she does this, she sounds like a follower, not a leader. In the end, the movement might overtake her, but while she is still at its center she seems genuinely to be trying to do the right thing.
"This thing," she said, "it's bigger than me now."
Sheehan believes that no matter what happens, one thing she accomplished was the returning of the Iraq war to its rightful place at the forefront of the national consciousness. She describes an experience earlier in the week when a TV producer offhandedly mentioned to her that her timing was perfect, that Sheehan had been lucky to hold her vigil on what was otherwise a slow news week.
"And I said to her, 'A slow news week? Didn't thirty soldiers die in the war this month?'" She shook her head. "It's crazy. Iraq should be the lead story every day."
Late that night, a car pulled up at the campsite. There was a woman at the wheel, and she was crying.
She was a Bush supporter who lives in the area, but her son was about to be shipped off to Iraq. She had made a special trip out here to complain about the long row of white crosses the protesters had planted along the side of the road -- each cross bearing the name of a fallen soldier. "Y'all are breaking my heart!" she cried. "My son hasn't gone yet, and I have to see those crosses every morning." She collected herself, wailed, and cried again, "You've broken one woman's heart!"
She drove off.
In the Sixties, the anti-war movement was part of a cultural revolution: If you opposed Vietnam, you were also rejecting the whole rigid worldview that said life meant going to war, fighting the Commies, then coming back to work for the man, buying two cars and dying with plenty of insurance. That life blueprint was the inflexible expectation of the time, and so ending the war of that era required a visionary movement.
Iraq isn't like that. Iraq is an insane blunder committed by a bunch of criminal incompetents who have managed so far to avoid the lash and the rack only because the machinery for avoiding reality is so advanced in this country. We don't watch the fighting, we don't see the bodies come home and we don't hear anyone screaming when a house in Baghdad burns down or a child steps on a mine.
The only movement we're going to need to end this fiasco is a more regular exposure to consequence. It needs to feel its own pain. Cindy Sheehan didn't bring us folk songs, but she did put pain on the front pages. And along a lonely Texas road late at night, I saw it spread.
(Posted Aug 25, 2005)