Cindy Sheehan never set out to be the face of the antiwar movement. She was a mom thrust by an ugly circumstance and a lovely faith to the forefront of a movement that was struggling to find its voice. She gave it that voice as an honest player who spoke her mind–sometimes intemperately, often imperfectly, always sincerely–and backed up her words with actions. Her unscripted activism allowed her to succeed where others had failed in touching hearts and calling the disengaged, the disenchanted and the downright angry to believe once more in the prospect that citizens can make real the promise of the American experiment.
So it was that when Sheehan announced that she was “resigning” from a role she never sought, the loss was palpable. Yes, the antiwar movement took her for granted. She was expected to show up, draw a crowd, willingly accept the outrageous attacks of critics, risk arrest–and get up the next morning and do it again. It was only when she explained in a poignant letter that she would no longer be the Sisyphus of a troubled movement that anyone bothered to think of what an essential player she had become.
“Nobody has given more to the peace movement in recent years–emotionally, physically, spiritually,” explained Tim Carpenter, national director of Progressive Democrats of America. With Code Pink and her own Gold Star Families for Peace, PDA was the group with which Sheehan most closely aligned herself during a period of nonstop antiwar activism that began after the death of her son, Army Spc. Casey Sheehan, in a Baghdad ambush. She became a national phenomenon when, in August 2005, she set up camp outside George W. Bush’s ranchette in Crawford, Texas, and demanded to talk with the President about her loss and about his responsibility to end the war before any more mothers suffered her fate.
On a Memorial Day weekend that fell just hours after Congress met Bush’s demand for more war funding, Sheehan reached what she described as “heartbreaking” conclusions. “The first conclusion is that I was the darling of the so-called left as long as I limited my protests to George Bush and the Republican Party. Of course, I was slandered and libeled by the right as a ‘tool’ of the Democratic Party. This label was to marginalize me and my message. How could a woman have an original thought, or be working outside of our ‘two-party’ system?” she wrote. “However, when I started to hold the Democratic Party to the same standards that I held the Republican Party, support for my cause started to erode and the ‘left’ started labeling me with the same slurs that the right used. I guess no one paid attention to me when I said that the issue of peace and people dying for no reason is not a matter of ‘right or left,’ but ‘right and wrong.'”
Sheehan was not whining in her resignation letter. She was despairing for a Republic to which she had shown a patriot’s allegiance. She and I had over the past several years appeared frequently onstage together, and we talked a lot about politics. But it was only over time that I came to understand Sheehan as a Jeffersonian Democrat in the best sense of that term. She believed, as the third President did, that people should not fear their government; government should fear the people. Now, she has come to question whether the will of the citizenry will prevail.
It is reasonable to argue with Sheehan about her read of politics and assessment of politicians. She’s the first to admit she’s no expert on campaign strategy or legislative tactics. But we should recognize the troubling turn politics have taken when one of democracy’s true believers ends her intense activism by saying, “I am deemed a radical because I believe that partisan politics should be left to the wayside when hundreds of thousands of people are dying for a war based on lies that is supported by Democrats and Republicans alike. It amazes me that people who are sharp on the issues and can zero in like a laser beam on lies, misrepresentations, and political expediency when it comes to one party refuse to recognize it in their own party. Blind party loyalty is dangerous whatever side it occurs on…. If we don’t find alternatives to this corrupt ‘two’ party system our Representative Republic will die and be replaced with what we are rapidly descending into with nary a check or balance: a fascist corporate wasteland.”
We have not seen the last of Cindy Sheehan. But this may be the last we see of her as that Jeffersonian Democrat who believed so deeply and so unapologetically in America’s promise. To my mind, this is the truest measure of the darkness in which we now find ourselves.