FLASH POINT: DEMAND TO SEE PRESIDENT DIVIDES HER FAMILY, ANGERS RIGHT, BOLSTERS LEFT
By Ron Hutcheson
CRAWFORD, Texas - By Thursday, President Bush could no longer ignore the grieving, angry mother from Northern California camped outside his ranch.
Cindy Sheehan of Vacaville set up her tent beside the road leading to Bush's 1,600-acre spread last week, demanding to talk to the president about her son's death in Iraq. She has endured blistering heat, an earthshaking thunderstorm and an army of fire ants. She has also set off a storm of her own.
With the death toll in Iraq mounting, Sheehan has become a flash point for emotions about the war. Her efforts to shame the president have won praise from the left and condemnation from the right, and they have divided her own family.
Journalists and supporters have flocked to her makeshift roadside campground on the central Texas prairie.
``I sympathize with Mrs. Sheehan,'' Bush told reporters Thursday after more than a week of intense media focus on his uninvited visitor. ``I've thought long and hard about her position. I've heard her position from others, which is, `Get out of Iraq now.' It would be a mistake for the security of this country.''
Not surprising, the answer didn't satisfy Sheehan, who vowed to continue her vigil for the duration of Bush's five-week visit to Texas. Aides said Bush, who met with Sheehan in a group of other grieving parents last year, had no plans to stop by her campsite.
``The president says he feels compassion for me, but the best way to show that compassion is by meeting with me and the other mothers and families who are here,'' she said in a response distributed by e-mail. ``Our sons made the ultimate sacrifice, and we want answers.''
Sheehan, 48, has been looking for answers since April 4, 2004, when her son, Army Spec. Casey Sheehan, died in Baghdad. The 24-year-old Humvee mechanic had been in Iraq about a week.
Sheehan said she had always opposed the war ``just kind of in a vague way,'' but her son's death transformed her.
While many mothers take solace in the thought that their sons or daughters died for a noble cause, Sheehan reached the opposite conclusion. She is convinced that her son died in an immoral and unnecessary war, and no words of consolation from Bush can change her mind.
Now the war that divides Americans has split Casey Sheehan's own family.
``I was proud of Casey. I am pro-Bush,'' said Angela Caspary of Corona, his aunt. ``He didn't kill my nephew. Even on the day we found out about Casey, we had no bad feelings toward George Bush.''
In a joint statement e-mailed to Knight Ridder in response to interview requests, Casey Sheehan's grandparents and other relatives from his father's side of the family said Sheehan ``appears to be promoting her own personal agenda and notoriety at the expense of her son's good name and reputation.''
They added, ``The rest of the Sheehan family supports the troops, our country and our president, silently, by prayer and respect.''
Cindy Sheehan and the president have talked before, about two months after Casey's death, when Sheehan and her husband, Patrick, joined other grieving parents for a meeting with Bush at Fort Lewis in Washington.
The Sheehans debated before the meeting whether to confront Bush with their criticism but decided it would be inappropriate.
``I now know he's sincere about wanting freedom for the Iraqis,'' she told the Reporter, her hometown paper in Vacaville, after the session. ``I know he's sorry and feels some pain for our loss. And I know he's a man of faith.''
Sheehan now says Bush treated the meeting as if it were ``a tea party'' and behaved inappropriately by calling her ``mom.''
At her Crawford campsite, Sheehan said her initial reaction to Bush reflected her grief and shock over her son's recent death. Her anger toward the president increased with the failure to find weapons of mass destruction and the release of a British memo questioning the White House rationale for war.
By her own description, this former Catholic youth minister has become an anti-war radical.
``Maybe I always was radical, but I never really was well-informed,'' she said. ``I don't pussyfoot around. This situation demands strong language. I don't let people tell me that Casey was lost -- he was murdered.''
In person, sitting beside a quiet country road in Texas, Sheehan is friendly, engaging and open. She acknowledges that her tactics and tough talk might alienate other military moms.
``The people who think their child died for a noble cause, they might need to believe that,'' she said. ``But one day, they might wake up and realize it is not a noble cause.''
Sheehan's supporters admire her determination and her energy. About three dozen allies have joined her at the campsite, and a steady stream of well-wishers stops by to offer encouragement.
``I feel like this is a moment when we have a possibility of raising all of the issues, all of the questions, about Iraq,'' said Celeste Zappala of Philadelphia, whose son, Sgt. Sherwood Baker, died in Iraq a few weeks after Casey Sheehan. ``It puts it front and center.''