Cindy Sheehan: Mother of a Movement?
In truth, Cindy Sheehan's backstory lacks intrigue. She is one of those celebrities whose public persona meshes fluidly with her private self, the kind of subject over whom profile writers wring their hands in dismay; she led Vanity Fair writer Evgenia Peretz, for example, to spend her August reporting stint in Crawford chatting with local ranchers and store owners rather than laboring for drama in Sheehan's psychology.
As I sat beside Sheehan on the side of a road in Mississippi waiting for the band of antiwar activists to join us, her answers to my questions were familiar, practiced and polished--as if she had shared these same thoughts with hundreds of reporters. Some see insincerity here; I see an act of contrition. Sheehan speaks of her son Casey's death and her own complicit silence about the war at podiums, before cameras, into microphones as if the string of Hail Marys might eventually allow her to forgive herself.
"I was never for the war," Sheehan says to me, as she has said to others. "I was against it in a vague way before Casey was killed, because I watched the news and I knew there were no weapons of mass destruction." But Casey's death, the 9/11 report and the Downing Street memo drove her to speak out. "I felt ashamed of myself for not doing something before Casey died," she says. Her activism is atonement: "At least now, I'm going to try and make a difference."
Her trajectory to activism is a morality tale she regularly relates, especially during her frequent speeches on college campuses. "What kept me from speaking out in the beginning was the sense that I couldn't make a difference," she says, noting that she saw millions of people around the world protesting the war in February 2003. "And George Bush responded by saying, I don't have to listen to 'focus groups,' and marched into Iraq."
Now she puts her apathy into a larger context. "I think the people in power want you to feel helpless, because if we all find our voice, our power, we really can make a lasting difference in this country," she says. "I think we have almost two-thirds of Americans opposed to the war today, and these people just need to find their voices."
In her low-key way, she injects a radical critique into the discourse. It is not a uniformly sophisticated analysis. (For example, after a trip to Canada in May she gushed that "Canadians have to be the healthiest-looking and most polite citizenry that I have encountered in my travels" and told them it was OK to "copy our baseball and the huge hearts of the American people" but don't copy our President.) And it has occasionally landed her in hot water: In an August e-mail to Nightline she is alleged to have complained that her son "was killed for lies and for a PNAC Neo-con agenda to benefit Israel." Sheehan asserted the e-mail was doctored by "former friend" James Morris, who is an anti-Semite. The fact that two others were cc'd directly from Sheehan on the e-mail makes this unlikely.
But she is generally a pragmatic voice. "How can we translate the polls, which tell us most Americans oppose the war, into direct action and policy changes?" she asks. Within the peace movement, factions are wrangling over whether to put energy into more mass mobilizations or to work locally, hammering away at legislative issues and local elections. Focusing on what's on the table is vital, Sheehan says, pointing to Russ Feingold's proposal to censure Bush, John Kerry's time-tied exit strategy for Iraq and Jim McGovern's bill to cut funding for the war. She is cautiously optimistic. "The complacency of the American people is our biggest obstacle," she says.
With that in mind, she sees herself less as an antiwar strategist and more as a motivator. "My role has been to energize people to go that extra mile or to take that initial step to become active in the peace movement. Maybe some Americans don't really realize how bad everything is at this point with the war, if it doesn't affect them personally," she says.
So she gets personal--and political--with her own story.
Living this fight day in and day out (her travel is partially funded by donations to Gold Star Families for Peace and partly by Casey's death benefits), I wonder if she ever gets frustrated with the peace movement. "Three steps forward, two steps back," she says with a shrug.
Call it perspective. Or call it resignation. But Sheehan seems to exist above the fray, a kind of grand dame of the peace movement who declines to niggle over the details and simply urges all the various factions to get along. "Sometimes when I go into a community where there are turf wars among groups, Dede will have to call ahead and say, 'If you don't get your act together and stop arguing, Cindy is not going to come,'" she confides.
As we sit by the side of the road in Mississippi and the minutes tick by, I ask about the bus the marchers are to arrive in. We have been waiting a very long time.
"It'll come," she shrugs, as patient and confident about the gaggle of activists she is waiting for as she is about her mission, world peace.