It would have taken half an hour or less, and it might have lowered the temperature on a month's worth of searing publicity.
When Cindy Sheehan showed up outside President Bush's ranch on the fourth full day of his five-week working vacation to talk about a son who had been killed in Iraq, he declined to meet with her -- a decision that has been widely second-guessed, even by some Republicans. The way that choice was made, and the reasons for it, provide a vivid illustration of several hallmarks of Bush's style, including his insistence on protocol, his concern with precedent, his resistance to intrusions and his aversion to hand-wringing.
According to the accounts of several advisers, Bush and his aides concluded that it would be a mistake to yield to Sheehan's demand for a second meeting with Bush to discuss the death of her son, Casey, who was killed in Iraq at the age of 24 last year when his Army battalion was attacked with rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire. The president had made it clear, going back at least to a California railroad swing during his 2000 campaign, that he does not care to meet with protesters or to reward them.
White House officials maintain that Sheehan may have discredited herself with statements about impeachment, her insistence on a withdrawal from Iraq, her mixing of her cause with that of the Palestinians, and her accusation that Bush "killed" her son. If Sheehan has lost credibility with the public, the "peace mom" might turn out to be only a summer sensation.
But if Sheehan winds up providing the catalyst for a muscular antiwar movement, Bush's handling of the matter will turn out to be not only characteristic but also consequential.
Before leaving Thursday after her mother had a stroke in California, Sheehan had spent 13 days camped out in Crawford and had galvanized liberal activists at a time when a spate of U.S. troops had just died in Iraq, Iraqi leaders were flagging in their effort to complete their constitution, and polls were showing a notable souring of the public view of the war. The resulting "Camp Casey" has provided the biggest platform for the left since last year's release of Michael Moore's film "Fahrenheit 9/11."
Satellite trucks jockey with tractors on the narrow roads around Bush's ranch, animal-rights activists hand out grilled "meatless riblets" in 100-degree heat, and liberal radio shows hold live broadcasts.
"I'm just going to set my butt down on the ground if they tell me to go," Sheehan said on a conference call for Web loggers. When MSNBC's Keith Olbermann noted all the media attention and asked whether it was "really better if President Bush doesn't meet with you," she replied: "I would think so, yes. I think it's great."
The question of whether Bush was insensitive or out of touch, which had been a flash point in the campaign, was back, and commentators were once again talking about presidential naps. Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) said on CNN the next day that it would be good to invite Sheehan in "just as a matter of courtesy and decency." Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) said Friday on CNN that "the wise course of action, the compassionate course of action, the better course of action would have been to immediately invite her into the ranch."
In Australia, a headline taunted, "Awkward facts intruding on the Bush 'bubble.' " In India, a newspaper called Sheehan "the Rosa Parks of the anti-war movement." On ABC's "Good Morning America," George Stephanopoulos said that "a lot of Republicans would say . . . that this is the president's Swift boat moment," a reference to Sen. John F. Kerry's tardiness in responding to attacks on his war record during last year's presidential campaign.
Bush aides said that, beginning on Monday, he will try to bolster support for his Iraq policy by giving three speeches in military settings over the next two weeks. They said he will argue that just as "the greatest generation" saw World War II through to victory, the nation must be patient while today's military combats terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan. Citing the approaching fourth anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Bush will contend that the ideology of terrorism and the willingness to kill innocents link the insurgency in Iraq to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and to last month's bombings in London.
Some of Bush's aides acknowledge now that they did not anticipate the reaction to turning Sheehan away, but they also are not expressing any regrets about it. These aides maintain that one of the strengths of this White House is a willingness to resist "what appears to be the easy PR route," as one aide put it, and to have the discipline to stick to long-laid plans.
A former White House official said the Sheehan decision reflected a policy that Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. has enforced for five years on everyone from donors to governors to top aides. "If you want a meeting with the president, you will never get it," the official said. "If you need a meeting with the president, you will get it 100 percent of the time. Otherwise, he'd have a thousand meetings a day."
With Sheehan, the advisers explained, there were additional considerations, most notably that Bush had met with her -- at Fort Lewis, Wash., last summer, as part of the occasional private sessions he holds with the families of fallen troops.
Aides said they knew that she was a fierce partisan, exemplified by her appearance at a Democratic event on Capitol Hill in June to call attention to the "Downing Street memos" on the allied preparations for the war. The aides said they also took into account the fact that a meeting might lead to a spate of similar demands, and they said they thought it was possible that any meeting would fuel the attention to Sheehan rather than head it off. "If five mothers replaced her, what have you accomplished?" a senior administration official asked. "That was a huge part of the decision."
Aides said they discussed Sheehan several more times in the days that followed, and Bush said when he and his national security team met with reporters: "I sympathize with Mrs. Sheehan. She has every right in the world to say what she believes. This is America. She has a right to her position. And I've thought long and hard about her position."
Two days later, Bush explained his approach to journalists invited to ride mountain bikes on his ranch. "I think it's important for me to be thoughtful and sensitive to those who have got something to say," he said. "But I think it's also important for me to go on with my life, to keep a balanced life."
Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said Bush's focus on the long term rather than the immediate is "part of what, to his supporters, is steadfastness and, to his critics, is stubbornness."
"If you allow those who are the most vocal and most antagonistic to get a meeting with the president for fear that publicity will hurt you if you don't, you're creating incentives for your critics to become even more antagonistic and more vocal," Fleischer said. "Then, you're forever stuck in: Will you or won't you meet? You'll no longer lead. You'll just wrestle with meetings."