There’s Something About Cindy

She is a tall woman, with blond hair cut in a wedge. Except for her height, she is plain; there is nothing extraordinary about her small blue eyes or her toothy smile, which persists even when she’s talking about the death of her 24-year-old son, Casey, in the siege of Sadr City on April 4, 2004; even when she’s talking about wanting to drive a political stake into the black heart of George Bush. Watching her chat at the kitchen table of Code Pink for Peace co-founder Jodie Evans this past week, surrounded by Westside women more flashy and fashionable than she, I contemplate the strangeness of her heroine status: This is a woman who married her high school sweetheart, baked her own kids’ birthday cakes, knew just how to run her hand across a child’s soft head as she delivered a bit of bad news. She is not the only one who stepped forward to speak against the war after losing a son or daughter in Iraq, and despite the success of her summertime vigil at Bush’s Crawford ranch, she has not spoken with any particular skill: “She needs to take some speaking lessons from Jessica Lange,” I’d griped to a friend over coffee after hearing her high-pitched, slightly nasal whine over the radio during the September anti-war rally in Washington, D.C. (Lange had spoken in smooth, darkly modulated tones to the same throngs in Washington.) Cindy Sheehan did not seem born to her role. And yet I’ve come to this event, billed as an “informal breakfast,” not as a member of the press, but as a backslid peacenik intrigued by Sheehan’s apparent gift for bridging the gulf between activist left and ordinary disgruntled citizen. “This woman has galvanized the peace movement like no one else in our lifetimes,” I told Dean, the man I live with, when I talked him into coming along. “This is a sliver of history.” Okay, I was consciously exaggerating — his is the more comfortable of our two cars, and I wanted his company because I hate the drive to the Westside — but on some level I meant what I said: Sheehan fascinates me. We spend the first 15 minutes of the gathering grazing on organic blueberries, sipping rich, fair-trade coffee and meeting people whose names we’d known only from Democratic e-mail lists. Our host introduces a woman in a yellow T-shirt, who talks about how Sheehan’s organization, Gold Star Families for Peace, has set up offices in Venice and needs support and volunteers. “People don’t realize it’s here,” she says. “We could use some help spreading the word.” Then Sheehan speaks. Not in her rally voice, but low and soft. She seems tired. She says the bus tour around the country has been going well and thanks everyone for their support. She acknowledges that the negative attacks on her have reached a frenzied pitch; Limbaugh, O’Reilly and Hannity have all turned more vicious in recent weeks, calling her a feckless tool of the left. But then she says something that really gets our attention: “The negativity stings — not at all,” she says, chuckling a little. “I mean, they already killed my son on April 4. What more can they do?” She slaps herself gently on either cheek. “So, you know, bring it on.” Behind me, Dean, who has a teenage son of his own, exhales hard. “Oh, wow,” he says. “That’s right. Her son died. Her son really died.”

* * * *

With all the hullabaloo around Cindy Sheehan, all the debates about whether she deserves spokespeople and whether she’s sincere and whether she had the right to demand a second meeting with Bush, many of us forget that she has suffered an unimaginable grief: Parents should not outlive their children. Casey Sheehan may have been an enlisted soldier, but he was a mechanic, not a fighter. In the local news reports just after his death, while all of Vacaville still grieved with her, she was already articulating that horror more eloquently than most. “The flowers are dying,” she told one reporter about the memorials in her house two weeks after Casey’s death. “Now the shock has worn off, and we’re beginning to feel angry he was there, without a clear understanding of why he was there.” The reporter, with no frame of reference, spun those words uneasily into a more manageable sentiment: “Like hundreds of families across the country, they wonder why. Why my son? Why not me? What kind of soldier was he?” But as it became clear that those were not exactly the questions Cindy Sheehan was asking, it also became possible to dismiss her anguish — her son’s death became something abstract and bloodless, a symbol. In some quarters, a stunt. After her talk, everyone goes back to mingling, and we work our way toward Sheehan, standing to the side while others fawn. But in a moment, she turns to us, both hands outstretched. “I haven’t met you,” she says, smiling. Suddenly she has ceased being plain. She looks me straight in the eye, and I sense that thing in her that people talk about after they’ve met Bill Clinton, or Warren Beatty — that unearthly charisma, that magnanimous, ministerial charm. And so I shake her hand and tell her how great it is that she’s not just, you know, preaching to the choir, that she’s reaching people outside traditional protest circles. “Well,” she says, “I have been preaching to the choir, too, but they’re not always singing. But thank you.” Then she turns to Dean, who has something else to say. “When I heard you talk about your son just now,” he starts, “I just realized — I mean, I have a son, too, and I just want to say, I’m so sorry.” As his words come out, the world as I know it slows down in a way it hasn’t since I fell down a flight of stairs five years ago. I want to stop him, like I wanted to arrest my own fall, but it’s too late. You’re not supposed to say that, I want to tell him, and I brace myself: This will be an awkward moment. Dean’s son is alive, and he is talking to a woman who has met so many devastated parents, heard of so many senseless deaths. His son, artistic, skinny and thin-skinned like his father, seems unlikely to ever serve in anyone’s army. But Cindy Sheehan doesn’t know any of this, and she doesn’t care. Without a flinch, without a beat of hesitation, her arms float up and envelop him in a hug. Dean’s tears escalate into short sobs he struggles to catch in his throat, and in the few moments that her chin rests on his shoulder, I see that there are tears in her eyes, too.


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