Cindy Sheehan: Mother of a Movement?
Sheehan's rise to prominence was in some ways haphazard. "I got this phone call from Cindy last August," says Nancy Lessin, co-founder of Military Families Speak Out, the antiwar group from which Sheehan's Gold Star Families for Peace evolved. Sheehan was headed down to Dallas to join a Veterans for Peace conference and had just heard that President Bush was on vacation at his Texas ranch. "Do you know how far Crawford is from Dallas?" Sheehan asked Lessin, reckoning that since she was in the neighborhood, she just might swing by.
But when she tried to coax the conference leadership to make a big showing in Crawford, she met with resistance. Organizers were worried that the protest would draw members and media attention from their own convention. In the end, somewhat reluctantly, a busload of antiwar protesters was dispatched to Crawford for the day; Sheehan, of course, stayed longer.
"Well, Cindy landed in the ditch with the best acoustics in the world," says Lessin. "Here's the White House press corps, and they're in Texas, and it's hot and the President's on vacation, and they're looking for a story. And here is Cindy, sitting outside Bush's ranch speaking, with all her heart and soul."
In this regard, Sheehan's emergence as the face of the peace movement was accidental. "In the last year, Cindy had done a lot of work--traveling, speaking, writing--to grow into her wider role in the antiwar movement," says Dobbs. "She was working her ass off to get ready." But that doesn't mean she was handpicked by the antiwar movement. In fact, United for Peace and Justice, the largest antiwar coalition, held a February 2005 strategizing summit in St. Louis. Medea Benjamin, who heads Code Pink, a women's organization for "pre-emptive peace," nominated Cindy Sheehan to serve on the steering committee. "She lost the election because no one knew who she was," Benjamin marvels. Since then, of course, Sheehan has become a key figure in the constellation of antiwar organizations and outlets--from UFPJ to MoveOn.org, Code Pink, Air America and the liberal blogosphere--that have emerged in the last few years.
Today, her fame creates some tension in the movement, especially because there are so many others like her who are equally dedicated. For example, Sheehan's tale of woe is eerily similar to that of fellow peace activist Bill Mitchell: Sheehan's son volunteered to help an ambushed unit in Sadr City on April 4, 2004; Mitchell's son did the same. Both young men died there that same day. But despite Mitchell's presence at her side for ten days in Crawford, at antiwar marches with her and in sequential speeches at peace rallies, Sheehan is a household name and no one's heard of Bill Mitchell. Mitchell himself doesn't complain, and Sheehan tries to get him onto talk shows with her--but media appearances begat media appearances for Sheehan in a snowballing effect that has nothing to do with fairness.
Combine that with the cynical mistrust of leaders in general on the left, and the questions about her multiply: "Is she for real?" we wonder, hoping to learn how she'll weather the political vicissitudes.