Not being as intimately acquainted as some others seem or claim to be with the ineffable methods and motives of the universe, I would hardly say that it is providential that Cindy Sheehan had to leave Crawford to be with her mother in Los Angeles, who had a stroke. But it will be interesting and perhaps even instructive.
We might just find out whether we have a real peace movement, rather than a media phenomenon, in the making.
What to think about Cindy, the grieving mother whose son was killed in Iraq and has been staging a peace vigil outside the president’s home in Texas? She certainly has become a household word. But has she sparked a genuine and effective antiwar movement that has a chance to influence how soon American involvement in the misbegotten war in Iraq will come to an end, if ever?
There are two major reasons Cindy Sheehan has received so much attention from the media. Neither reflects a great deal of glory on my colleagues in the “straight” news side of the business, but one is more serious and perhaps more lasting in its impact than the other.
The first, of course, is that when President Bush takes a working vacation in Texas, the White House press corps is pretty much obliged to follow him (though you could make a case that actually going to Crawford is more a fetish than a necessity). Once there, however, they end up doing a lot of standing around, hoping for a scrap of news (real or contrived) or a soundbite to compensate them for spending so much time in a place they hardly relish.
You didn’t hear so much grumbling from the media about endless presidential vacations when they were in Cape Cod or California. But Crawford is hot, dusty and isolated from urban or even upscale semi-rural (like a wine country or nice beaches) amenities. Not much to do but grumble.
So it’s not surprising that they leapt like panthers on the story of a grieving mom hoping for an audience with the commander in chief. Cindy Sheehan and/or those who helped to facilitate her I just don’t know, although somebody probably does, the extent to which MoveOn.org or other organizations financed as well as promoted and did public relations for her vigil had the savvy to figure out that August in Crawford was the ideal place to get a disproportionate (or maybe not, see second reason) amount of publicity with relatively little money and effort.
The second reason the media focused so easily on Cindy Sheehan may reflect an effort to dramatize another trend. For the last several months opinion polls have been showing a quiet but ultimately dramatic turnaround in Americans’ attitude toward the war in Iraq. An August 8 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll showed 57 percent of American adults responding that the Iraq war has made the U.S. less safe, not more safe, from terrorism, up 18 percent in 60 days. The same poll showed 54 percent believing it was a mistake to send U.S. troops to Iraq and 44 percent saying it wasn’t, a reversal of what Americans told pollsters they thought in June.
How to cover the story of increasing skepticism about the war when it’s a matter of individual Americans, one by one, as circumstances changed, changing their minds? You can’t go out and interview the thousands who responded to the poll, or even hundreds of ordinary Americans or at least you can’t given the resources (or resource-allocation decisions) of most media organizations.
Interviewing ordinary Americans will often get you a pastiche of ordinary answers, with no quote suitable to be featured in a bold-face insert to break up the grey matter. And how do you find those who have changed their minds, the interesting aspect of the story at this point, rather than those who opposed the war from the outset and are likely to give you predictable blood-for-oil or Bush-as-Hitler quotes?
Relatively large-scale changes in the political or cultural landscape, which are necessarily complex, begin outside of officialdom and so often off the radar screens of the mainstream media, as well as having a certain amount of subtlety or nuance, have been notoriously difficult for the media to notice when they are happening or to cover with much insight even shortly after they have happened. The media missed the civil-rights revolution in the South until it had pretty much already happened, as well as the tax revolt of the late 1970s.
There have been small stories in most of the media when poll results reflecting increasing skepticism about the war were released, so most reporters are aware changes might be on the way, even though the shift in sentiment hasn’t yet become much of an organized movement, let alone a political influence. How to put a face on the shift in sentiment? Cindy Sheehan made herself available, so she became one public face of growing skepticism.
Other faces of public skepticism will have to make themselves known to the media, who by and large are nowhere near as assiduous as they would like you to believe they are or as they think they are at tracking down all sides of a complex story.
As a war opponent from the beginning, I have mixed feelings. Ms. Sheehan has not confined herself to doubting the war’s wisdom, but has unburdened herself of an array of remarks ranging from personal insults of the president and his family to offhand remarks about Israel and Palestine. It’s understandable that one might want to put an array of issues before the public when you have the chance to have your views magnified by the amplifiers of the media. But I think she would have been more effective if she had stuck stubbornly to a single question: “I just want to know what core American interest was served by my son’s death.”
There’s a constituency for comments like saying a protest is “for all our brave souls (American or Iraqi) who have been murdered by the Bush crime family,” which Mrs. Sheehan is widely reported to have said. There are unquestionably Americans who take delights in hearing someone call the president “that lying bastard” or “that maniac.” There’s a frisson in comments to the effect that without the Internet America “would already be a fascist state.” Plenty of people get their intellectual rocks off hearing comments like “You tell me the truth. You tell me that my son died for oil. You tell me that my son died to make your friends rich. You tell me my son died to spread the cancer of Pax Americana, imperialism in the Middle East.”
In terms of influencing the larger body politic, however, such remarks are not likely to persuade. They might even repel people who are coming to doubt the wisdom of the war in Iraq but are not even close to hating their country, their government or even their president.
None of this takes anything away from the fact that it was Cindy Sheehan, not you or I, who actually took the initiative to go to Crawford. Nor does it justify some of the more scurrilous and personal attacks on her that have come from the War Party from the beginning of her vigil. Indeed, it is impressive that at least several hundred other antiwar Americans, of varying political persuasions, have joined her there. It is encouraging that they have held prayer meetings, demonstrating that like most Americans, they are respectful of religion.
I suspect, however, that the fact that the predominant tone coming from Camp Casey has been embittered-left which may be how it has been filtered through the media and not reflective of a wider variety of views on the road to the Bush estate might have been helpful in the short run but not perhaps in the long run. We need at least some faces of the antiwar movement to be people whose deep love of America and respect for her institutions and the promise she still holds of expanding freedom the right way practically oozes from their pores, so there can be no doubt they are patriots. We need people in suits and ties as well as dungarees and bandanas. We need an antiwar movement that looks like America to begin to have a real impact on American policy.
If one is disappointed by any aspect of what Cindy Sheehan has done, however, the antidote is to go do something yourself. I confess that I have no talent for organizing, though I will continue to write and will happily talk pretty much any place I’m invited. But those who do know how to organize would do well to think of coalitions centered on the single issue of bringing the troops home as soon as possible and agreeing to disagree quietly on a wide range of other issues and agreeing also to keep focused on the single issue rather than giving in to the temptation of trying to unload an entire ideology in a single soundbite.