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Cindy Sheehan: Vacaville, Santa Barbara, Crawford

Mother of a movement or flash in the pan?

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It all started at the national convention of Veterans for Peace in Dallas, when Cindy Sheehan got up to talk, once more, of her pain as a Gold Star Mother. Then, perhaps much to her own surprise, she bolted the hall, taking about half the convention with her, headed for Crawford... and, within days, became the soaring, empathetic symbol of opposition to the dismal, painful Iraq Adventure.

Then came the thunderingly awkward, stuffy, armored Bush side: if The president were not so used to obeisance... if he had ever learned to think spontaneously... if he had ever learned to deal with real people... he would have, seemingly spontaneously, hopped down from his armored SUV on his first sortie from The Ranch, embraced Cindy, and hunkered down in the ditch, listening to her with what seemed, at least, to be genuine empathy.

That idea probably never occurred to him, nor to the tightly clenched Karl Rove, nor to simpering Dick Cheney. It would have been a sign of intolerable weakness.

I said above that it all started at the VFP Convention in Dallas. Actually, it started in the gloaming of a spring evening, on the sand at Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara.

It was Mothers' Day, 2004. Veterans for Peace was keeping the crosses of Arlington West up into the dark and on through the night. About 1,000 people came that evening, to light candles of remembrance. Out of the crowd came the blonde woman from Vacaville, her sadly seamed face even more deeply etched in the candlelight.

Instead of a quiet, temperate speech of mourning, she took off in impassioned rhetoric... a spontaneous stem-winder that grabbed our attention and incidentally violated the strict Arlington West policy against politicizing. As we listened, then clustered around her, I suspect Cindy Sheehan realized she had a power within her.

Thereafter, she used the money she got from the U.S. government in return for Casey's life to travel the country, unleashing passionate calls to bring the troops home from Iraq, to minimize the number of Gold Star Mothers scattered through the populace of this nation.

Slowly she began to appear on nationally televised shows, even talked on Capitol Hill. All of which gave her assurance that she was tapping into a feeling that ran deep in the American soul but had not yet found expression. From time to time, Cindy would show up again at Stearns Wharf, always more passionate, as she gained experience and. confidence on her crusade.

Then came the VFP convention on Sunday, Aug. 7 in Dallas... and the cavalcade to Crawford in White Rose, the Vets for Peace bus which had chugged all the way from northern California to Texas, and is now, once again, at Crawford, ready to take Cindy and others to Washington for a September protest. The moment Cindy stepped off White Rose at Crawford may have been the instant Mr. Bush's Iraq Adventure started seriously to unravel.


Consciously or otherwise, she played to the starved media... she was everyone's mom, apple pie and ice cream. From Vacaville, which no one had ever heard of. Even better.

The top-of-the-line correspondents were off, but all major outlets had someone in the press corps there, bored, hot, even angry they were stuck in that dusty, no-horse town. Cindy gave them an unmistakable story: the blonde, weathered Davida against the insensitive, motorized, convoyed Goliath. I don't know whether Cindy made that calculation: she's shrewd but she's not sophisticated, which is one of her endearing characteristics. Whatever. Consciously or otherwise, she played to the starved media... she was everyone's mom, apple pie and ice cream. From Vacaville, which no one had ever heard of. Even better.

The story was irresistible. After the first day of wariness, they knew it had legs, and the reporters ran with it, excitedly. August-bored editors saw the ingredients and ordered up more. Camera crews scrambled. National political pressure groups swung into action. Foreign news outfits took fascinated note. A democratically skewed PR firm arrived.

But despite all the kafuffle, Cindy remained Cindy. Down-home. Tearful. Human. Approachable. Vulnerable. Voluble, but visibly honest. Such a contrast with the glowering SUVs and the unapproachable president... the man who talked so big when he was backed by a picked, disciplined crowd of choristers. In a way it was like that admirable Pennsylvania gopher, Punxsutawney Phil... with no disrespect to either side... who sometimes sticks his head out of the ground to announce the end of winter.

By about Wednesday last week, people in situation rooms across this broad and speckled land began to wonder... Two words crept into a few blogs and some advisories: Tipping Point? The big, bold question mark was absolutely necessary.

People who had been reluctant to oppose The War because they did not want to appear unpatriotic followed the lead of Ms. Straightforward Sheehan, and came out of their closets of silence. Some people thought it might put a hex on it if they dared to think this small ripple could rise to become the kind of wave we had experienced at the time of Vietnam, the kind that drove LBJ from office.

But it began to look as if, just maybe, a real antiwar opposition might coalesce around Cindy Sheehan, staunchly supported by Bill Mitchell of Atascadero, who also has spent time at Arlington West. Certainly the liberal organizations which had flung themselves and their money into the fight thought it was possible.

By the end of the first week, The Roveites knew they had a major containment problem. All the familiar voices... the Limbaughs and the Hannitys and the Drudges... quickly found reason, real or imagined, to pick away at Cindy's credibility, a sign that maybe she was making some headway from the tent at the side of the road in Crawford. Suddenly there were stories out of Vacaville maligning Cindy, from people who were happy to say or imply things that would sap at her stature as an emotional, straight-arrow woman.

Down in Texas, someone fired a rifle or a shotgun into the air. There were some instances of unsheathed violence, as in the pickup truck which knocked down the crosses of Crawford's Arlington West... signs that the Bushites were beginning to worry... and that they didn't really know how to counter the Cindy Effect.

And then Cindy's own mom had a stroke and Cindy flew to L.A. and suddenly the antiwar movement was without its figurehead. Could those who had moved in keep up the momentum, without its so-dear symbol? How strong is the feeling of revulsion that lives are being lost for the wrong reasons? Will Cindy Sheehan of Vacaville emerge as "the avenging mother" of a "singular crusade" as Paul Harris of London's Observer asked rhetorically over the weekend? Will she come back from tending her stricken mother to personify and energize a crusade of motorcades heading for Washington in September?

By Sunday, Frank Rich of the New York Times felt the Bush counter-campaign had already failed: that the antiwar groundswell was now firmly established in the American psyche. Can the Crawford Crusade evolve into a Movement? Endure, grow, mature and become an ineluctable political force, even without that weathered, evocative face on screen every evening?

Will Cindy Sheehan become an international symbol of conscientious grief or will Cindy slip into the delete file of flash-in-the-pan celebrities... just a simple Middle American who captured the attention of some bored reporters in a dusty village in Texas for a few days, and then fizzled, politically, when her mother's health wavered and the newsies moved on to something more juicy? Stay tuned.

Bayard Stockton is a former correspondent living in Santa Barbara. You can reach him at drayab@silcom.com

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