On the side of a hot, dusty road in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, peace activist Cindy Sheehan, 48, sits on the tailgate of an SUV with her sister, Dede Miller, 47. Although it is not yet 10 AM, a relentless sun beats down and the two women pass a tube of sunscreen back and forth, slathering up for the day of protest marching in front of them.
Dede, who quit her job of twenty-seven years as a human resources manager at a California K-Mart to head Sheehan's fledgling antiwar group, Gold Star Families for Peace, and to help manage her more famous sister's schedule, pushes dark curly hair off her already red and sweaty face. She wordlessly hands Cindy a baseball cap, which her sister promptly puts on.
The women sit in companionable silence, waiting to hook up with a parade of 100 antiwar marchers--and hurricane survivors--traveling from Mobile, Alabama, to New Orleans. Tired from air travel the day before, they sip from water bottles, squint against the glare as they peer down the road for signs of marchers, check their watches and wait. They are on autopilot; they have been around the block on this one before.
Soon, along with dozens of antiwar activists who will swarm Sheehan with requests for her to autograph their T-shirts, to pose for photos with their arms across her shoulders, to listen to their stories, she will be approached by CNN, a local reporter, the BBC, Al Jazeera, The Nation.
Over the next three hours, she will sign each T-shirt, pose for each photo, listen to each story and agree to every interview.
Cindy Sheehan is, of course, the grief-stricken mother of a soldier killed in Iraq, who garnered so much attention when she camped outside George W. Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch for three weeks last August. At the time Sheehan told the world that she wasn't leaving until President Bush had the courtesy to come and explain why her 24-year-old son, Army Spec. Casey Sheehan, had to die in this unnecessary war.
Bush declined to chat.
The media did not.
Reporters descended in droves to speak with this woman who had the audacity to mourn so publicly on Bush's doorstep. Suddenly, Sheehan's exhausted, sunburned face flashed across TV screens and into nearly every living room in the country--and around the world.
In the months since, Cindy Sheehan has emerged as the symbol of the antiwar movement, drawing crowds of well-wishers, counterprotesters and a slew of media to each of her many appearances across the nation and abroad. She is credited with galvanizing a nation whose approval rating of the President on Iraq was slipping to a dangerous 40 percent and injecting life into a sluggish peace movement. Sheehan's "fifteen minutes of fame" have stretched out to nearly fifteen months. She has rocketed from the obscurity of a low-key suburban California life where she did administrative work for the county--and before that worked for nine years as a youth minister at the local Catholic church--to Diane Sawyer's couch, Chris Matthews's hot seat and just about every national news program in between. Though she says she has always been politically left of center and admits that she opposed the Iraq War from the beginning, she was not an activist and had never spoken publicly against the war until July 4, 2004, three months after her son's death, when she addressed an antiwar crowd at a local church.
Today, she is more famous than anyone in a peace movement that lies poised on the brink of change: Public opinion has swung against the war--thanks in equal parts to antiwar activists and to Bush's own hubris and blunders--but this shift in Americans' thinking has yet to translate into significant changes in policy or leadership. At this critical juncture, all eyes are trained on Sheehan.
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 Chßvez 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 na´vely 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."
The authenticity of her message resonates because she is ordinary--and thus unthreatening. "As a mother myself, the first time I heard Cindy speak I was in tears," says Karen Dolan, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. "She was so poignant and touching that I was sure the average American, regardless of their political views, couldn't help but be moved by this mother who lost her son in Iraq." That said, Dolan thinks Sheehan risks losing credibility when she goes beyond that, as when she considered running against Feinstein. "In the end, she wisely decided against that," says Dolan. "I know she is well versed in many other issues, but I think the reason she connects with the public is that she is the mother of a son killed in Iraq. If she strays from that, she dilutes her message."
Indeed, part of Sheehan's power as a voice of the peace movement comes from her very lack of power as a mother. Unlike Jane Fonda, who spoke out against the Vietnam War from her privileged perch in Hollywood, Sheehan emerged as a middle-aged, middle-class Everymom who was simply raising her voice in the time-honored exception to maternal decorum: a shout to defend her kid. In fact, the rich tradition of "Don't mess with my boy!" extends across time and place from the mundane schoolyard scrap to the 1915 Women's International League to the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who demonstrated for their "disappeared" sons every Thursday for years in Buenos Aires, to the contemporary Union of Soldiers' Mothers in Russia, where hordes of women are protesting their sons' conscription.
"Women as mothers can claim a kind of legitimacy that government officials never have," says Clark University Professor Cynthia Enloe, author of The Curious Feminist: Searching for Women in the New Age of Empire. "Their feelings--and they are often reduced to people who are important because of their feelings--are so much more authentic than anything expressed by government officials."
But speaking from the vantage point of "motherhood" is a double-edged sword. "Maternalism can be a trap, too," Enloe says, "since we often tend to trap women in that narrow space, motherhood." As with the women of Greenham Common, who marched from Cardiff, Wales, to the military base in 1981, when they spoke first as mothers who feared for their children in a nuclear war, their objections are dismissed as na´ve. "These women, as mothers, were trivialized by the government, who said, 'What could they know about radiation and fallout?' They were treated as the rank amateurs on the block," says Enloe.
"We want to make her the na´ve mother, and if we hear that she is really politically conscious we start to doubt the authenticity of her maternal message," Enloe says, shedding some light on Sheehan's evolution from the darling of the press (in the early days, when she was portrayed, Rosa Parks-style, as a grief-stricken mom who simply materialized on Bush's doorstep) to a less trustworthy spokesperson of the left's antiwar message (once her connections to a more radical peace agenda were exposed).
There are other issues raised by the emergence of a soldier's mother as the icon of the peace movement. "It's good that the antiwar movement is open to military families, that it worked with them, played a supporting role to help get their own organizations going, but I think it has gone too far," says Rahul Mahajan, who serves on the steering committee of United for Peace and Justice and publishes the blog Empire Notes (www.empirenotes.org). He insists that the surge in American nationalism has led us to grant military families too much credence. "We fed into a critique of the war that was highly patriotic and jingoistic, an insistence that the war is wrong because it represents a deviation from America's past." Mahajan points out, however, that this does not come from Sheehan herself, who regularly insists that all war is "barbaric," places the Iraq War in the context of US imperialism and always mentions the numbers of Iraqi victims of the war in her speeches and interviews.
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.
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.
Karen Houppert, an Air Force brat and a New York journalist, is the author of The Curse: Confronting the Last Taboo, Menstruation (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) and, most recently, Home Fires Burning: Married to the Military--for Better or Worse (Ballantine Books), about military wives whose husbands have been deployed.
© 2006 The Nation