By Marc Sandalow
Published on Thursday, August 11, 2005 by the San Francisco Chronicle
WASHINGTON - A grieving Northern California mother's vigil near President Bush's Texas ranch is putting a human face on the toll of the Iraq war as she brings worldwide attention to her anguish.
Cindy Sheehan of Vacaville began camping in a ditch along the road leading to Crawford, Texas, on Saturday, determined to confront Bush over the death of her son Casey, a 24-year-old Army specialist who was killed in Sadr City on April 4, 2004.
That a grieving woman seeks to speak to the president or that she opposes the war is hardly news as the war rages in its third year. But the image of an anguished 48-year-old mother standing outside the vacation home of the most powerful leader in the world, asking him to explain her son's death, is compelling and has caught the attention of millions of people from Canada to New Zealand.
For Bush, Sheehan's presence seems to create a no-win situation.
If he invites her to talk, he further elevates her protest, potentially angers the other families of the more than 1,850 Americans who have died in Iraq and provides Sheehan a greater forum to spread her anti-war views.
If he ignores her, he risks appearing so callous that he doesn't have the time, or the inclination, to spend a few minutes of his vacation with a mother who lost her son as a direct consequence of the president's foreign policy decisions.
Bush dispatched national security adviser Steve Hadley and Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin to talk with Sheehan on Saturday -- a step Sheehan said was insufficient -- but has shown no willingness to invite her to the ranch. White House aides left reporters in Crawford with no sense that they were considering such a meeting.
Sheehan, who took shelter in a nearby motel Tuesday night after rain and lightning threatened her tent, said she will remain in Crawford through August unless she gets a "good'' meeting with the president or is arrested.
Fascination with the story is growing among the dozens of Washington journalists assigned to follow Bush in Crawford with little else to do, as well as among an ever-growing Internet audience. The Web site Technorati.com, which monitors Web logs, listed "Cindy Sheehan'' as its most frequently requested search.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and other members of Bush's foreign policy team gathering in Crawford this morning must either helicopter to Bush's ranch or drive directly past Sheehan's encampment, where scores of supporters and reporters will be watching.
"Cindy is making history. She is also leading a movement,'' said Bob Fertik of Democrats.com, who helped Sheehan create the Web site: meetwithcindy. org.
Almost as quickly as Sheehan has been idealized by war opponents, she has been demonized by some war supporters, who consider her a pawn of the left.
Some parents of killed veterans have rejected her campaign and have stood by the president. Others have said her behavior is disrespectful.
"I don't know what is driving Mrs. Sheehan, but I do know she's being used,'' said conservative Fox News Channel host Bill O'Reilly. "No question that she has thrown in with the most radical elements in this country.''
O'Reilly cited her association with "Fahrenheit 9/11'' producer Michael Moore and other antiwar advocates as examples of her radicalization.
Among the criticism of Sheehan is that she already met with Bush, about two months after her son was killed, and emerged from that meeting saying positive things about the president.
"I now know he's sincere about wanting freedom for the Iraqis. I know he's sorry and feels some pain for our loss. And I know he's a man of faith,'' she said in a 2004 interview with the Vacaville Reporter.
The comments were reprinted this week on the Drudge Report, an Internet site popular with conservatives, and were the basis of many attacks on talk radio, television and blogs accusing her of changing her story.
However, Drudge did not report everything Sheehan told the newspaper.
"We haven't been happy with the way the war has been handled,'' she also was quoted as saying. "The president has changed his reason for being over there every time a reason is proven false or an objective reached.''
In a note to readers Wednesday, Diane Barney, editor of the Vacaville Reporter, took issue with the suggestion that Sheehan has changed her story.
"We don't think there has been a dramatic turnaround. Clearly, Cindy Sheehan's outrage was festering even then,'' Barney wrote.
Sheehan has since complained that Bush didn't know her son's name when he entered the 10-minute meeting and did a poor job of sharing their sorrow.
If given the chance, Sheehan said in a conference call Wednesday with reporters, she has three things she wants to tell the president.
She wants to ask him what "noble cause'' her son died for; she wants to ask him if the cause is so noble, has he encouraged his own daughters to enlist; and she wants to tell him to stop saying the way to honor the troops killed in Iraq is to complete the mission.
"The only way they can honor my son's sacrifice is by bringing the troops home,'' she said.
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