Cindy Sheehan: Mother of a Movement?
When people grouse about her--on the right and on the left--they usually begin by wishing she had quietly disappeared after her fifteen minutes of fame in Crawford. Columnist Jennifer Hunter's February 2006 commentary in the Chicago Sun-Times is typical: "I have become mightily disillusioned with Ms. Sheehan. Her whole anti-war shtick--which I heartily supported in the beginning--is becoming a lesson on how one initially well-intentioned woman, given a microphone and some airtime, can become immune to good sense."
But Sheehan persists, declining to go quietly into that good night. Indeed, she has amped up her volume. She considered a symbolic run for Senator Dianne Feinstein's California seat this year, decided that running for office would dilute her antiwar message and withdrew; was arrested in January at Bush's State of the Union address for wearing a T-shirt with the slogan 2245 Dead. How Many More?; was arrested again in March at a UN protest in New York City; and has spoken at hundreds of colleges, marches and events around the world--even joining Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez on his weekly TV program.
While it is clear that Cindy Sheehan rises and falls on the strength of the peace movement, in a peculiar inversion of logic, pundits and organizers often mistake her symbolic role for a leadership role: In other words, as Sheehan goes, so goes the antiwar movement, which lends her every utterance enormous--some would say disproportionate--weight.
"A personality is easier to parse than a movement," says Bill Dobbs, formerly spokesperson for the antiwar coalition United for Peace and Justice. "So the scrutiny of Cindy has been intense."
Indeed, over the last year, Sheehan has been lambasted for a host of infractions, ranging from charges that she has politicized her grief to rebukes for naïvely weighing in on foreign policy decisions best left in the hands of the big boys in Washington.
Some of the criticism is predictable. She speaks as a mother, and her mothering comes under fire. There are the scoldings she gets--typically from other women--for protesting the war instead of staying home to cook her family dinner. A tiresome charge dredged up for decades against any woman who takes to the streets for a political cause, it is particularly spurious here: Sheehan's three remaining "children" have left the nest for college or the workforce. (Sheehan herself argues that she is taking care of her children--and yours--by trying to make sure they don't die in needless wars: "Because it's always young people who are killed in old men's wars," she says. "And I'm going to work for peace for the rest of my life. That is my vocation. This is my life.")
Other charges run the gamut. She is condemned for "exploiting death" (Rush Limbaugh); for being exploited herself at Camp Casey (Christopher Hitchens: "as well as being an hysterical paranoid ideologist, or at least being manipulated by people who are, who turned this into Camp Fruitbat and Nutbag"); for being deranged by grief (Michael Barone, U.S. News & World Report: During World War II "she would have just been thought to have been a person who was the victim of a personal tragedy and who had gone over the bend as a result of it. And they would have mercifully given her no publicity"); for being co-opted and manipulated by radical lefties (Mark Steyn, Chicago Sun-Times: "She's a woman whose grief curdled into a narcissistic rage, and most Americans will not follow where she's gone--to the wilder shores of anti-Bush, anti-war, anti-Iraq, anti-Afghanistan, anti-Israel, anti-American paranoia"); and for speaking beyond her place as a mother (Meghan Gibbons, Washington Post: "Preserving the purity of the average mother's voice has always been essential to motherhood groups. The most influential have coached mothers not to pontificate on subjects beyond their expertise").
Still, the only rebuke that seems to rankle Sheehan is the charge leveled at her by counterprotesters that her son Casey must be turning over in his grave to hear his mother condemn the war, and by extension his military service.
But some see this as her greatest asset. "Cindy Sheehan's appeal lies in the fact that she embodies a different narrative about how to cope with the death of soldiers," says antiwar movement veteran Tom Hayden. "The traditional narrative is that the war must go on because the nation's dead demand it from the grave." This mandate of the dead, that they shall not have died in vain, becomes a powerful argument against ending a war, says Hayden. "What Cindy and other military families have provided--and only they can provide--is an alternative narrative such that the death of their sons becomes a mandate to stop the killing. They are speaking on behalf of the dead in a new way, insisting that the dead will have died in vain if Bush exploits their death in order to kill more young men and women. And for that reason, she's an embodiment of something very, very significant."