Why has Cindy Sheehan -- the bereaved mother camped outside President Bush's Crawford ranch -- transfixed the nation?
Partly because she captures something profound about the war in Iraq. Vietnam was a mass-participation war: Nearly 3 million Americans fought; more than 58,000 died. And it provoked a mass antiwar movement: Year after year in the late 1960s, hundreds of thousands of Americans traveled to Washington to protest. The assumption was that everyone would serve. It was that assumption, and the fear it created, that drew so many demonstrators into the streets. And it was the betrayal of that assumption -- as children of the elite evaded service -- that ripped America apart.
In Iraq, by contrast, the government never assumed mass participation. In this era of the professional military, the war has affected many fewer people. And it is exposing cultural fissures not because Americans were asked to serve and refused, but because this time few Americans were even asked.
So a surrogate war has produced a surrogate antiwar movement. This time, mass protests would only cloud the issue. As the parent of a dead soldier, Sheehan has so much moral authority precisely because so few Americans (including so few of us who supported the war) risk sharing her plight.
But if Sheehan's vigil says something important about Iraq, it also says something important about President Bush. Sheehan, after all, has only one demand: She wants to confront the president face to face. The demand is so provocative because one of George W. Bush's defining qualities is his aversion to exactly this sort of challenge. Former administration officials portray a president carefully shielded from unpleasant or dissonant information. According to former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Christine Todd Whitman, "There is a palace guard, and they want to run interference for him." Former Treasury secretary Paul O'Neill described Bush as "caught in an echo chamber of his own making, cut off from everyone other than a circle around him that's tiny and getting smaller and in concert on everything."
And while this cocoon may be partly the work of zealous aides, there's reason to believe it is exactly what Bush wants. In 2004 the president told a Washington Times reporter that he doesn't watch news on TV or even read the newspaper except to scan the front page. "I like to have a clear outlook," he explained. "It can be a frustrating experience to pay attention to somebody's false opinion or somebody's characterization, which simply isn't true."
Bush clearly dislikes being challenged by reporters. In his first term, he held fewer individual news conferences than any president in almost a century. And he dislikes being challenged by his political competitors -- as the country learned during last year's first presidential debate, when Bush repeatedly scowled during John Kerry's answers. In fact, Bush aides were so scrupulous in shielding him from criticism during the campaign that they routinely expelled people wearing Kerry paraphernalia from ostensibly public rallies.
On Iraq, officials bearing bad news have been similarly expelled. When Gen. Eric Shinseki suggested the occupation might require several hundred thousand troops, the Pentagon hastily announced his replacement, rendering him a lame duck. National Economic Council director Lawrence Lindsey lost his job soon after telling the Wall Street Journal that the war could cost up to $200 billion. Had the Bush administration heeded these warnings -- rather than punishing the people delivering them -- America would be far better off today.
When Cindy Sheehan first met with Bush, and tried to discuss her slain son, she encountered this self-protective filter firsthand. "He didn't want to hear anything about Casey," she told CNN. "He wouldn't even call him 'him' or 'he.' He called him 'your loved one.' Every time we tried to talk about Casey and how much we missed him, he would change the subject."
Politically, Sheehan wants another meeting because she wants Bush to bring the troops home. (A request he is right to refuse, since it would be a disaster for national security and a betrayal of our responsibility to Iraq.) But emotionally, she is seeking something more primal: to rattle him. She wants to shake the president's famed self-assurance, a self-assurance that comes from rarely having to confront the consequences of his actions.
Another politician -- think Bill Clinton or John McCain -- probably would have met with Sheehan long ago. After all, her request isn't that hard to grant. But for this president, it clearly is. Which is partly how we got into this mess in the first place.
The writer is editor of the New Republic and a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution. He writes a monthly column for The Post.