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Sheehan Feeling the Glare of the Spotlight

Cindy Sheehan hugs a supporter at her protest site in Crawford, Tex. Conservatives have criticized her, and she says some sympathetic groups have agendas she does not share.
Cindy Sheehan hugs a supporter at her protest site in Crawford, Tex. Conservatives have criticized her, and she says some sympathetic groups have agendas she does not share. (By Jason Reed -- Reuters)

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By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 17, 2005

CRAWFORD, Tex., Aug. 16 -- Cindy Sheehan rode into town 10 days ago, a forlorn mother with a question for her president: Why did my son die in Iraq?

But now the same wave of publicity and political anger that she rode to become a nationally known symbol of the antiwar movement threatens to crash down on Sheehan herself.

Conservative commentators and Web sites are taking aim at Sheehan with the same ferocity she has aimed at President Bush. In part, they are using her own words against her -- reciting such controversial comments as her vow to refuse to pay taxes to a government waging an "illegal" war and her desire to see Bush impeached.

The backlash is becoming a new object lesson in how saturation media coverage and the instinct for personal attack are shaping political debate. Some independent commentators said the pushback on the right has succeeded at scuffing the public sympathy and deference she had earned as the mother of a fallen soldier, and has shown how virtually any subject relating to the Iraq war and Bush's presidency is viewed through a partisan lens.

"Cindy Sheehan has emboldened the progressives who oppose the war and caused the conservative diehards who are behind the war to go into a defensive mode," said Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine, a trade publication for talk radio. "Cindy Sheehan is going to be a target, and they'll probably go through her past to find what they can to discredit her."

Since her son, Casey, 24, was killed in Iraq last year, Sheehan, of Vacaville, Calif., has traveled the country trying to drum up opposition to the war in Iraq. She has participated in peace conferences, demonstrations and a mock congressional hearing about the "Downing Street memo" -- notes of a meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his top advisers that said the Bush administration had decided to go to war and molded intelligence findings to support that decision.

In that time, Sheehan, 48, a soft-spoken woman who says she was radicalized by her son's death, has engaged in her fair share of inflammatory rhetoric.

"It's obvious Cindy Sheehan has become a political player, whose primary concern is embarrassing the president," Fox Television personality Bill O'Reilly wrote Tuesday in an online column. "She is no longer just a protester."

Bush, Sheehan said, lied to the American people about the war and should be impeached. She is refusing to pay taxes in hopes that the Internal Revenue Service will come after her to collect. "I'm not supporting a government that wages an illegal, immoral war," she said. "I want them to come after me, so I can put the war on trial."

Still, she said some of the statements attributed to her are distortions. Contrary to a letter attributed to her that is circulating widely on the Internet, she asserts that she has never said that the United States is waging the war in Iraq to protect Israel.

"I have said a lot of strong things, and I'll stand by everything I said," Sheehan said, adding that she thought the document had been altered. "But I didn't say that."

The scrutiny that has accompanied Sheehan's quick rise to prominence has extended to her family. Several in-laws have publicly criticized her protest -- announcing their displeasure in a release to the Drudge Report. News that Sheehan's husband, Patrick, has filed for divorce has been trumpeted by some bloggers as evidence of her extreme views.


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