Two years ago, the national media anointed Cindy Sheehan as one of the leaders of the anti-war movement when the longtime Vacaville resident planted a lawn chair down the road from President Bush's Texas vacation ranch and refused to leave until he explained what "noble cause" her soldier son, Army Spc. Casey Sheehan, died for in Iraq.
This week one of the anti-war movement's most recognizable figures said she was "resigning" from the movement. Emotionally exhausted and politically frustrated at congressional Democrats for continuing to fund the Iraq war, Sheehan said she was leaving public life -- albeit temporarily -- to figure out her next step.
Anti-war leaders praised her bravery in putting a human face on the war's toll, but said the movement will not be derailed by her departure. Analysts said Sheehan has become an increasingly polarizing figure since staging her impromptu "Camp Casey" in Crawford, Texas, in August 2005, especially after she appeared with Bush-bashing Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and announced that she would not pay federal income taxes to support the war.
"She did a tremendous thing in that she took her personal loss and made it public, so that people could understand the cost of the war," said Nita Chaudhary, an anti-Iraq-war organizer for MoveOn.org. Sheehan had criticized MoveOn in March for not doing enough to oppose the war.
"The anti-war movement is now the person next door, it's not just Cindy Sheehan," Chaudhary said.
The mounting number of deaths of U.S. soldiers in Iraq -- and the return of severely wounded soldiers speaking out about getting substandard treatment -- has made Sheehan's opposition to the war the predominant opinion.
When the mainstream press discovered Sheehan in Crawford, 55 percent of Americans disapproved of the way Bush was handling the war. Now, 72 percent of Americans oppose the war, according to a May CBS/New York Times poll.
Some of Sheehan's opponents, like Roseville resident Deborah Johns, couldn't be happier with the news of her departure.
One of Johns' sons just returned from his third tour in Iraq, inspiring Deborah Johns to serve as a spokesperson for "You Don't Speak for Me, Cindy," a "counter-summer of 2005 Sheehan demonstration."
"I was just like, 'Hooray,' when I heard the news," Johns said. "I am glad she is going back under the rock she crawled out from under. Her negative attitude does a lot to harm the troops who are over there now. I do not know why the mainstream media was so enthralled with her."
At first, the media wasn't. And Sheehan's critics like to point out that after Sheehan met Bush in June 2004, she said, "I know he's sorry and feels some pain for our loss. And I know he's a man of faith."
Any positive feelings Sheehan harbored for Bush soon dissipated. Soon she was calling him a "liar" a "filth-spewer" and worse.
One of Sheehan's first major media appearances was in Sept. 2004, when The Chronicle brought together Northern California families who had a loved one killed in action in the Middle East.
Sheehan brought tears to many there when she held up a threadbare doll that belonged to her son.
"This is his teddy bear," she said. "He ate all the fuzz off of it while he was a baby, but he wouldn't go to bed without it. He would cry, 'Bear, bear, mama, bear,' " she said.
Soon, other media outlets began to discover her story. She continued to make appearances across the country for various national anti-war organizations. In late 2004, she started her own organization, Gold Star Families for Peace, as a combination support group/activist organization.
During the summer of 2005, Sheehan was at a Veterans for Peace convention just outside of Dallas, when she announced she and a crew of other activists would camp near Bush's vacation ranch until he addressed them.
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Ordinarily, it was the sort of activist stunt that rarely gets covered by mainstream outlets. But the national press corps, which was sitting in Crawford during the president's summer vacation and seeing precious little news coming out of the White House, pounced on the human interest story. Within days, Sheehan had done hundreds of interviews and supportive pilgrims -- and celebrities like actor Viggo Mortensen -- showed up on the triangular patch of grass a few miles down the road from Bush's ranch to lend their support.
While she was still in Texas, MoveOn organized 1,625 supportive candlelight vigils across the country, as Sheehan's story of a mother demanding answers from the president resonated in suburbs seemingly untouched by the war, like Pleasant Hill, the Contra Costa County suburb where 400 people attended a pro-Sheehan rally.
"She was a very good mix of the symbolic and the real. She was a real person who lost a real son and wanted real answers from a real president," said Michael Nagler, a professor emeritus at UC-Berkeley and founder of its Peace and Conflict Studies program.
Anti-war leaders appreciated the media coverage she brought to the issue, but privately they worried. The peace movement had tried hard to be decentralized, and not push any of its leaders out front.
"There had been a conscious effort in the peace movement over the last 20 to 25 years to get away from having national leaders," Nagler said. "That way if someone tried to pick off the leader, it would not end the movement.
"Now, the movement is deep enough and diverse enough. (Sheehan) served an important role," Nagler said, "but her loss is not a crippling blow."
Part of the reason is that as Sheehan's story became iconic, she became a target for those who support the war, and a polarizing figure for others whom the peace movement desperately needed to reach. Some said she was exploiting her son's death. In the January 2006 issue of Vanity Fair, Sheehan was photographed sitting on her son's grave. National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg said it "may be the most shameless, exploitative stunt of the decade."
On Memorial Day -- on what would have been her son's 28th birthday -- Sheehan posted a long note on the liberal DailyKos.com blog titled "Good Riddance Attention Whore."
"The most devastating conclusion I reached this morning," she wrote, "was that Casey did indeed die for nothing."
On a Tuesday appearance on the Ed Schultz radio show, Sheehan softened her stance a bit, saying that she would retool her organization into one focusing more on human rights and could be ready to announce a new venture within two months.
"Oh, no," anti-Sheehan activist Johns said when told of the update. "I knew it was too good to be true."
Regardless of how Sheehan resurfaces, Nancy Lessin, a founder of the anti-war organization Military Families Speak Out, noted that her influence will continue. There were only two families when Lessin's organization started in the fall of 2002; now there are 3,500.
"Cindy Sheehan has provided a tremendous service," Lessin said. "But the peace movement was around before Cindy Sheehan, and the peace movement will be around after her."
E-mail Joe Garofoli at email@example.com.
© 2007 The San Francisco Chronicle