MORE

Camp Cindy

With apologies to Don Rumsfeld, let’s say you have to go with the anti-war movement you’ve got — not the one you’d like to have. Camped out on the edge of George W. Bush’s Potemkin Crawford ranch, talking herself hoarse through dozens of interviews a day and speaking with the authority of the dead — in this case, her son Casey — Cindy Sheehan has become both a compelling and a curious national cause.

To a parent who has lost a child, be it in war or on a dark two-lane highway, I am ready to grant a near-boundless emotional berth. That said, I would find Sheehan more compelling than curious (instead of the other way around) if she hadn’t already met with the president after her son was killed in Iraq last year; if her son had not been an adult who made a voluntary decision to enlist; and if Sheehan were not so emotionally cool about the grief that she says fuels her protest. I also would wish that the Usual Suspects — from Michael Moore to MoveOn.org — had not glommed onto Sheehan and her gesture. I would wish that the “progressive” PR firm of Fenton Communications had not sent a specialist out to her encampment to represent her. I am pained to hear Sheehan call for a U.S. withdrawal of troops also from Afghanistan. (Isn’t one of the more disturbing consequences of the invasion of Iraq the diversion of U.S. military forces away from that country?)

I also get nervous when anyone claims to speak for the dead. Nor am I comfortable giving the relatives of slain soldiers special moral status in dealing with issues of war and peace. Such matters are a solemn responsibility as well as a right of all citizens, and we should be careful about elevating the standing of military families. It’s a dangerous gamble for the left; no matter how unpopular a war has become, it will always be easier for the right to mobilize that constituency. Can’t we soon anticipate something like the Swift Boat Veterans Against Cindy Sheehan to materialize at any moment?

And yet, with all these hesitations — at least on my part — Cindy Sheehan has struck a national nerve. She stalks the president at a time when the American cause in Iraq seems as stalled, directionless and bloody as ever. U.S. combat casualties have soared. Suicide bombings and car-bombing attacks now come in daily multiples. The deadline for a new constitution came and went. At the precise moment when that deadline expired, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had the temerity to appear on national television and say, “We are witnessing democracy at work in Iraq. The new constitution will be the most important document in the history of the new Iraq.”

But only a day before, the White House had sent out a platoon of anonymous spinmeisters so that the Washington Post could report on its front page that the “Bush administration is significantly lowering expectations of what can be achieved in Iraq, recognizing that the United States will have to settle for far less progress than originally envisioned... [and]... no longer expects to see a model new democracy, a self-supporting oil industry or a society in which the majority of people are free from serious security or economic challenges, U.S. officials say.”

In other words, the administration now concedes — though without direct attribution — that the American people should be ready to accept that this war is bound to result only in some form or other of an Islamic republic in Iraq.

Little wonder, then, that President Bush hasn’t done the obvious and shut down Camp Cindy by simply consenting to meet privately with Sheehan again for a few minutes. When it comes to Iraq, the White House has nothing new to say to her or to the American people beyond the breezy platitudes of Secretary Rice.

Indeed, the administration has so relentlessly painted itself into a corner, it has so twisted the facts to justify an ill-conceived and mismanaged war, that the president’s handlers consider a pro forma meeting with Sheehan to be a sign of unacceptable waffling and weakness. Steely-souled Dubya ain’t about to give in either to terrorists or to that crazy lady from California.

Which leaves the rest of us, not to mention the Iraqis, in one heck of a mess. Through the course of this summertime drama, not a single prominent, or even back-bench, Democrat has seen fit to visit Camp Cindy and offer some words to her — or to us (compare this to the infinitely more resolute Republicans who came back from vacation to stand with the living dead in the case of Terri Schiavo). Those Democrats who would purport to succeed Bush a few years from now are too busy pandering on other fronts to offer any real alternatives: Joe Biden trying to outflank Dubya on the right, Hillary Clinton rustling her skirts over lascivious video games, and her husband’s former Lewinsky-crisis errand boy, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, promoting his presidential fortunes by playing footsie with the Minutemen, no less.

Nor have the most ardent Bushies acquitted themselves with any honor in this skirmish. For those Americans who, mistakenly but with humanitarian intentions, support this war, how embarrassing it must be to watch the antics of those who have rallied in Crawford against Sheehan. Has there recently been a more vile moment in our already debased body politic than that staged this past weekend when Fox News contributor and radio talk-show host Mike Gallagher convened his “army” contra Sheehan and, wielding a bullhorn, led a chant of “We Don’t Care”?

So let me shelve, if only temporarily, all my reservations about the flakier side of Cindy Sheehan. No one else seems willing to step forward and risk it all. Give her some due. And then pray for the rest of us.