A mother's mission puts her in spotlight

Woman, 48, demands meeting with Bush over her son's death in Iraq

August 11, 2005|By Edwin Chen and Dana Calvo | Edwin Chen and Dana Calvo,LOS ANGELES TIMES

CRAWFORD, Texas - For more than a year, a modest bungalow located a few miles from President Bush's ranch and known as "Peace House" served as the somewhat forlorn local headquarters for anti-war activists. It was lonely work, with little more than a skeleton crew on duty most of the time.

But that was before Cindy Sheehan hit town.

The 48-year old mother of Army Spc. Casey Sheehan, who was killed in an ambush in Baghdad last year, Cindy Sheehan is consumed by the kind of grief that turns into a furious determination to do something - in her case, to confront the president personally and force him to explain why her son died.

Now, in the space of just a few days, what started out as a seemingly quixotic personal mission has become something of a phenomenon - with news media from across the country swarming around Sheehan, leading liberal and anti-war activists parachuting in to try to make her their long-sought voice, and political experts in both parties trying to assess whether she might become a catalyst for the public's growing unhappiness with American casualties in Iraq.

What anti-war leaders hoped to do was turn Sheehan into a symbol, a catalyst for public opinion that could transform the slowly gathering unhappiness over American casualties in Iraq into a focused political force.

For its part, the White House struggled to cope with Sheehan's vigil without abandoning their carefully crafted strategy for having the president meet with such families privately, away from news cameras and reporters.

By last night, Sheehan - who camped out in a tent Tuesday night until a pre-dawn cloud-burst drove her to seek shelter in Peace House - had given so many interviews that she was sucking on lozenges to soothe an enflamed throat. Her ears were sore from cradling a telephone. And her newly arrived media adviser said she had developed a fever.

That did not keep her from delivering her message. Whether talking to newspaper reporters, People magazine, or radio and television interviewers, she was relentlessly on message.

"I don't believe his phony excuses for the war," she said of Bush in a session with a CBS reporter who was interviewing her for the network's Northern California affiliates. "I want him to tell me why my son died.

"If he gave the real answer, people in this country would be outraged - if he told people it was to make his buddies rich, that it was about oil."

Sheehan is certainly not the first to denounce the president over the war in Iraq. From the beginning, anti-war activists have been outspoken in criticizing both Bush's war policy and his stated reasons for sending U.S. troops into Iraq.

For the moment, however, the personal nature of Sheehan's protest, with its edge of raw emotion, and the concentration of news media staked out in Crawford while Bush is on vacation have combined to raise her voice above the crowd.

"Anything that focuses media and public attention on Iraq war casualties day after day - particularly that is a good visual for television, like a weeping Gold Star mother - is a really bad thing for President Bush and his administration," said independent political analyst Charlie Cook.

"Cindy Sheehan has tapped into a latent but fervent feeling among some in this country who would prefer that we not engage our troops in Iraq, a sentiment that has laid dormant since John Kerry's defeat in November," said Republican strategist Kellyanne Conway, president of the Washington-based firm The Polling Company.

"Cindy Sheehan is a non-presidential-year spokesperson for that latent but unmistakable number of Americans who wish the Iraq war would disappear," said Conway. "She can tap into what has been an astonishingly silent minority since the end of last year's presidential contest. It will capture attention."

Other analysts predicted, however, that Sheehan would soon fade from the scene.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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