Kings used to do it with gaudy displays; presidents do it with speeches and news conferences; demonstrators do it with placards and hunger strikes; and now Cindy Sheehan has done it with a simple encampment that captured broad media attention last week. In a floodlit world, nothing and no one gets to be a political force without making an impression in public.

The truism that politics is part theater holds equally true when the president poses for photo ops ("our little playlets," one of Ronald Reagan's staffers once called his appearances), or a group calling itself the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth accuses John Kerry of lying, or Chinese protesters build a papier-mache Goddess of Democracy. Almost everyone with political objectives tries to crystallize a position in a picture. Symbolic confrontations between the protester and the powerful are most vivid.

Because modern power is exercised by vast organizations, the face-to-face confrontation is a way of making graphic somebody's personal responsibility. The protester says to the official, "You hide behind abstraction and the vast machine of your power. You say 'We,' but behold, I say you are another 'I.' "

This is the thinking behind the growing antiwar movement outside Crawford, Tex. -- which last week moved to land nearer to the president's home-away-from-home. It is led by the bereaved mother of an Army specialist killed in Iraq who has, somewhat surprisingly, become an international story -- the embodiment of war damage who provides an insight into the administration's failing effort to make good of a desperately bad situation.

By way of explaining Sheehan's meteoric rise to her minutes of fame, it is hardly irrelevant that August is a chronically slow news month, that sharks and missing blonde girls may have worn out their welcome as reliable focuses for column inches, and that therefore Sheehan and her advisers have benefited from a yawning (in both senses) news hole.

Yet there is more. It is as if a switch has been flicked in the political universe. Sheehan had been going around giving speeches against the war for more than a year without attracting much attention. Suddenly she is big news. Why?

First, the war's popularity, while fluctuating, has sunk over the past 12 months. According to Gallup polls, for more than a year a majority of Americans have thought it was a mistake to go to war. Earlier this month, 54 percent thought it mistaken and 56 percent wanted the United States to withdraw some or all troops. So Sheehan has made a timely emergence as a representative of that growing zone of sentiment where American bewilderment and impatience meet outright opposition. She wants troops withdrawn, but more, she wants an explanation from the president. She wants it face to face -- which does not seem an extravagant demand to many fair-minded people who would like that, too, whatever their own views about what the United States should do now in Iraq. Yes, she had a brief meeting with the president last year, but at a time when her grief may have been too acute for her to ask the hard questions for which she now wants answers. And her growing assembly of supporters see her as a worthy symbol of their cause, a woman who is entitled to a conversation about the war that took her son.

All public actors -- whether political movements, corporations or philanthropic causes -- seek to put a sympathetic face on their claims to legitimacy. Over the years, this tactic has become so common that a term of art (often expressed with dismissive sarcasm) has evolved: "poster child."

Consider the antiwar movement of the 1960s, which made many efforts to personify the Vietnam War's damage and what it believed to be the war's wrongness. Photos of napalmed civilians were, for years, the chief mobilizing pictures. In 1966, a Green Beret sergeant named Don Duncan came to represent the incipient revolt within the armed forces themselves when he published an article in the leftist magazine Ramparts under the headline, "The Whole Thing Was a Lie!"

That antiwar movement also resorted to another tactic of face-to-face confrontation. Starting in 1965, faculty and student antiwar groups devised "teach-ins" to challenge the war, and often, at first, invited Johnson administration officials to debate the war with them. After a time, the government -- inept at winning its argument -- ceased sending its champions out.

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s was ingenious -- and consistent -- in the use of face-to-face confrontation. White supremacy was too grotesque to debate. The theater of civil disobedience was stark, forcing a wider public to choose: Rosa Parks or the rulers of Alabama? Four students sitting at a Woolworth's counter in Greensboro, N.C., asking to be served, or the racist bullies? Martin Luther King Jr., or police chief Bull Connor of Birmingham? These homegrown insurgents put faces on the more or less abstract problem of segregation. They turned the moral tables.

The tactic of personification cuts across political lines. Antiabortion activists present fetal sonograms as their poster not-yet-children. The anti-affirmative action movement had Alan Bakke and other white litigant-victims. Terri Schiavo, while scarcely a volunteer for martyrdom, was drafted by politicians such as Tom DeLay and Bill Frist to serve as the personification of an anti-euthanasia movement.

Confrontations that make news can often be defused with enough finesse. Yet a maladroit president has moved from one explanation of the war to another without convincing the public that his reason for "staying the course" is anything other than a stubborn insistence on. . .staying the course. His June 28 speech at Fort Bragg was supposed to reverse his approval slide but conspicuously failed. When he repeats himself, he sounds less firm than petulant.

He also sounded petulant, as well as insensitive, last weekend, when he said this in response to a reporter's question as to why he could find time for a bicycle ride but not a meeting with Sheehan:

"I think it's important for me to be thoughtful and sensitive to those who have got something to say. But I think it's also important for me to go on with my life, to keep a balanced life. . . . And part of my being is to be outside exercising. So I'm mindful of what goes on around me. On the other hand, I'm also mindful that I've got a life to live and will do so."

Not Lincolnesque, exactly. And easy to attack beside a mother's real grief. Earlier, he did sound respectful of her. But because the president wants to personify steadfastness by staying "on-message," it did not strengthen his hand that he failed to manage the task with her.

The war has been sanitized by physical distance, reticent news organizations, a White House that badly wants to keep the domestic damage -- the coffins and the funerals -- away from the cameras, and paradoxically, by the relatively low number of American casualties (that is, compared with other wars). Now Sheehan has picked up the support of some such as Elizabeth Edwards, the wife of last year's Democratic vice presidential candidate, who don't necessarily agree about what is to be done in Iraq but want an earnest discussion out in public and not in the shadows.

Sheehan may not get face time with the president, but she has already made a brilliant success of getting face time with the media. Bush is not winning the public struggle over what the war means. Aiming to represent the American presence in Iraq as an obvious right, but failing to engage objections and to have a conversation with a woman who has a gripping claim to one, the president only succeeds in undermining its rationale even in the minds of many who feel ambivalent about the state of play in Iraq -- those who worry about what becomes of Iraqis if the United States leaves, or starts leaving, or even announces that it plans to start leaving.

A grieving mother -- a mother who now has her own ailing mother to worry about -- has put the president at bay. A sympathetic neighbor offered land for the protesters' encampment, closer to the presidential ranch. Students will be back at school soon, and Sheehan's camp, should it continue, will likely tug at them, offering a focus for their activity. On Wednesday night, MoveOn.org claimed that there were more than 1,600 candlelight vigils supporting Sheehan around the country. In the small town of Hillsdale, N.Y., I counted 60 protesters; the drivers of many passing vehicles honked in support. The chief organizer, Melinda Gardiner, and a former Vietnam helicopter pilot, Bill Von Ancken, told me they were for immediate withdrawal; another demonstrator, Madeleine Israel, said she thought there were no good choices now that the United States was "stuck there" because of Bush's bad judgment.

Antiwar politicians from both parties have until now largely been avoiding Sheehan. But if the United States does not get some good news about its involvement in Iraq soon, senators and House members may well find that avoidance loses its shine. Other mothers of lost soldiers have flown to Crawford. Whether Sheehan returns from her mother's bedside, she has already succeeded in personifying her movement. Should she and other supporters start haunting more than the president, haunting politicians of all stripes, demanding at the least open debate about our next steps in Iraq, they are likely to build momentum and galvanize still more opposition to staying the course. And a movement will have coalesced, not around gaudy displays, speeches, news conferences or traditional demonstrations, but around an individual's passion to turn her personal loss into a reason for dialogue -- a democratic movement.

Author's email:

toddgitlin@toddgitlin.net

Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, is the author of "The Sixties" (Bantam) and, forthcoming from Columbia University Press, "The Intellectuals and the Flag."

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