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.
Sheehan acknowledges that some of her views are becoming a distraction. Also, she said, some groups that have aided her protest have agendas -- including conspiracy theories about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and some vaguely anti-Semitic theories about the cause of the war -- that she says she does not share.
Consequently, she has asked that her campsite near Bush's ranch be restricted only to organizations of military families, or those who have lost loved ones in the war.
"Attention got focused on the messenger and not the message," Sheehan said. "My thing is ending the war in Iraq. But there are a lot of people who want to attach their horse to my wagon, because of the exposure I'm getting."
The increased scrutiny of Sheehan is coming as some residents here are growing irritated with the stream of antiwar protesters drawn to her vigil.
On Tuesday, a spokeswoman for Sheehan announced plans to move the camp from the drainage ditches next to the winding road about two miles from Bush's 1,600-acre spread to a field on a ranch offered by one of Bush's neighbors. The new camp would be about a mile from the president's ranch. All that would be left behind at the original site would be three tents and hundreds of white wooden crosses bearing the names of troops killed in Iraq.
The move followed complaints by about 60 of Bush's neighbors, who petitioned McLennan County officials to expand a no-parking zone around the camp, in an effort to avert the traffic tie-ups that have become commonplace as the protest has grown. Also, Monday night a truck dragging chains and a pipe demolished some crosses; the driver, Larry Northern, 46, of Waco, Tex., was charged with criminal mischief.
Sheehan has promised to remain encamped throughout Bush's five-week stay here and to return whenever the president does. She also announced plans for a series of nearly 1,000 candlelight vigils Wednesday night across the country. Liberal advocacy groups MoveOn.org Political Action and Democracy for America are organizing the protests.
"All of this other BS just clouds my message," Sheehan said. "My message is that of a brokenhearted mom sitting down in front of George Bush's ranch, wanting to know why my son died."