By HELEN THOMAS
WASHINGTON -- President Bush has not experienced the kind of massive anti-war demonstrations that contributed to the political demise of Presidents Johnson and Nixon.
But the protest staged by Cindy Sheehan near Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch has drawn world attention to this grieving mother's loss of her 24-year-old son -- Army specialist Casey Sheehan of Vacaville, Calif. -- who was killed in Iraq.
Sheehan has vowed to continue her protest until the president personally speaks to her again. (Sheehan left Thursday after her mother suffered a stroke.)
Bush has refused to grant her request and instead tried to get this embarrassing episode behind him by sending Joe Hagin, White House deputy chief of staff, and Stephen Hadley, national security adviser, to meet Sheehan, who had been camped a few miles from the ranch.
Sheehan said the Bush aides were "very respectful" but that she still wanted to see the president.
She seemed to be particularly irked by Bush's statement that the sacrifices made by soldiers killed in Iraq were for a "noble cause."
Sheehan told reporters: "He said my son died in a noble cause, and I want to ask him what that noble cause is."
I remember first hearing the phrase "noble cause" in the 1980s when President Reagan referred to the Vietnam War in those terms, apparently trying to erase the bad memories of that unpopular conflict that divided the country.
President George Herbert Walker Bush picked it up and often spoke of Vietnam as a "noble cause."
Now the label has been resurrected for the war in Iraq. With that conflict going badly and the American public showing signs of impatience, the administration is alternately seeking to rally support with the "stay the course" chant or vague promises that U.S. troops will start leaving Iraq "soon," whenever that is.
But Bush has rejected setting a timetable for withdrawal and said it would be a "terrible mistake" to pull out of Iraq until the Iraqis can take over their own security.
Deputy White House press secretary Trent Duffy said "many of the hundreds of families the president has met with know their loved one died for a noble cause and that the best way to honor their sacrifice is to complete the mission."
"President Bush wants the troops home as soon as possible, but the U.S. will not cut and run from terrorists," added Duffy.
Sheehan's response is that she wants to "honor my son by bringing the troops home."
"I don't want him to use my son's name or my name to justify any more killing," she said.
Sheehan was one of a group of families who met separately with the president in June 2004, two months after Casey's death. But the meeting was not satisfactory to Sheehan, who said the president "wouldn't look at the pictures of Casey."
"Every time we tried to talk about Casey and how much we missed him, he would change the subject."
Sheehan went on to co-found the anti-war group Gold Star Families for Peace.
In interviews, Sheehan says she told Bush that she could imagine how he would feel if he had lost one of his two daughters.
"I told him, trust me, Mr. President, you wouldn't want to go there."
"You're right, I don't," she quoted him as saying.
Sheehan's subdued protest has been is in dramatic contrast with the massive demonstrations against the Vietnam War. President Johnson and his family could not avoid hearing the devastating chant of protesters: "Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?"
The protests grew as Nixon, Johnson's successor, continued the war. In 1971 an anguished Nixon went to the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall and talked to some of the young protesters.
So far, Bush has been shielded from peace activists. His audiences are usually vetted to make sure there is no anti-war disruption. That's one reason that Sheehan's request to meet with the vacationing president has attracted so much attention.
Her presence outside the Prairie Chapel Ranch -- home to the bike-riding, brush-cutting president -- has made Bush's five-week vacation one that he'll never forget.
Helen Thomas is a columnist for Hearst Newspapers. E-mail: email@example.com . Copyright 2005 Hearst Newspapers.