Our Imploding President

My brief immersion in the almost unimaginable life of Cindy Sheehan begins on the Friday before the massive antiwar march past the White House. I take a cab to an address somewhere at the edge of Washington, D.C. – a city I don’t know well – where I’m to have a quiet hour with her. Finding myself on a porch filled with peace signs and vases of roses (assumedly sent for Sheehan), I ring the doorbell, only to be greeted by two barking dogs but no human beings. Checking my cell phone, I discover a message back in New York from someone helping Sheehan out. Good Morning America has just called; plans have changed. Can I make it to Constitution and 15th by five? I rush to the nearest major street and, from a bus stop, fruitlessly attempt to hail a cab. The only empty one passes me by and a young black man next to me offers an apologetic commentary: “I hate to say this, but they probably think you’re hailing it for me and they don’t want to pick me up.” On his recommendation, I board a bus, leaping off ( blocks of crawl later) at the sight of a hotel with a cab stand.

A few minutes before five, I’m finally standing under the Washington monument, beneath a cloud-dotted sky, in front of “Camp Casey,” a white tent with a blazing red “Bring them home tour” banner. Behind the tent is a display of banged-up, empty soldiers’ boots; and then, stretching almost as far as the eye can see or the heart can feel, a lawn of small white crosses, nearly 2,000 of them, some with tiny American flags planted in the nearby ground. In front of the serried ranks of crosses is a battered-looking metal map of the United States rising off a rusty base. Cut out of it are the letters, “America in Iraq, killed ___, wounded ___.” (It’s wrenching to note that, on this strange sculpture with eternal letters of air, only the figures of 1,910 dead and 14,700 wounded seem ephemeral, written as they are in white chalk over a smeared chalk background, evidence of numerous erasures.)

This is, at the moment, Ground Zero for the singular movement of Cindy Sheehan, mother of Casey, who was killed in Sadr City, Baghdad, on April 4, 2004, only a few days after arriving in Iraq. Her movement began in the shadows and on the Internet, but burst out of a roadside ditch in Crawford, Texas, and, right now, actually seems capable of changing the political map of America. When I arrive, Sheehan is a distant figure, walking with a crew from Good Morning America amid the white crosses. I’m told by Jodie, a stalwart of Code Pink, the women’s antiwar group, in a flamboyant pink-feathered hat, just to hang in there along with Joan Baez, assorted parents of soldiers, vets, admirers, tourists, press people, and who knows who else.

As Sheehan approaches, she’s mobbed. She hugs some of her greeters, poses for photos with others, listens briefly while people tell her they came all the way from California or Colorado just to see her, and accepts the literal T-shirt off the back of a man, possibly a vet, with a bandana around his forehead, who wants to give her “the shirt off my back.” She is brief and utterly patient. She offers a word to everyone and anyone. At one point, a man shoves a camera in my hand so that he and his family can have proof of this moment – as if Cindy Sheehan were already some kind of national monument, which in a way she is.

But, of course, she’s also one human being, even if she’s on what the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton would call a “survivor mission” for her son. Exhaustion visibly inhabits her face. (Later, she’ll say to me, “Most people, if they came with me for a day, would be in a coma by 11 a.m.”) She wears a tie-dyed, purple T-shirt with “Veterans for Peace” on the front and “waging peace” on the back. Her size surprises me. She’s imposing, far taller than I expected, taller certainly than my modest five-feet, six inches. Perhaps I’m startled only because I’d filed her away – despite every strong commentary I’d read by her – as a grieving mother and so, somehow, a diminished creature.

And then, suddenly, a few minutes after five, Jodie is hustling me into the back seat of a car with Cindy Sheehan beside me, and Joan Baez beside her. Cindy’s sister Dede, who wears an “Anything war can do, peace can do better” T-shirt and says to me later, “I’m the behind-the-scenes one, I’m the quiet one,” climbs into the front seat. As soon as the car leaves the curb, Cindy turns to me: “We better get started.”

“Now?” I ask, flustered at the thought of interviewing her under such chaotic conditions. She offers a tired nod – I’m surely the 900th person of this day – and says, “It’s the only way it’ll happen.” And so, with my notebook (tiny printed questions scattered across several pages) on my knees, clutching my two cheap tape recorders for dear life and shoving them toward her, we begin:

TomDispatch: You’ve said that the failed bookends of George Bush’s presidency are Iraq and Katrina. And here we are with parts of New Orleans flooded again. Where exactly do you see us today?

Cindy Sheehan: Well, the invasion of Iraq was a serious mistake, and the invasion and occupation have been seriously mismanaged. The troops don’t have what they need. The money’s being dropped into the pockets of war profiteers and not getting to our soldiers. It’s a political war. Not only should we not be there, it’s making our country very vulnerable. It’s creating enemies for our children’s children. Killing innocent Arabic Muslims, who had no animosity toward the United States and meant us no harm, is only creating more problems for us.

Katrina was a natural disaster that nobody could help, but the man-made disaster afterwards was just horrible. I mean, number one, all our resources are in Iraq. Number two, what little resources we did have were deployed far too late. George Bush was golfing and eating birthday cake with John McCain while people were hanging off their houses praying to be rescued. He’s so disconnected from this country – and from reality. I heard a line yesterday that I thought was perfect. This man said he thinks Katrina will be Bush’s Monica. Only worse.

TD: It seems logical that the families of dead soldiers should lead an antiwar movement, but historically it’s almost unique. I wondered if you had given some thought to why it happened here and now.

CS: That’s like people asking me, “Why didn’t anybody ever think of going to George Bush’s ranch to protest anything?”

TD: I was going to ask you that too…

CS: [Laughs.] I don’t know. I just thought of it and went down to do it. It was so serendipitous. I was supposed to go to England for a week in August to do Downing Street [memo] events with [Congressman] John Conyers. That got canceled. I was supposed to go to Arkansas for a four-day convention. That got canceled. So I had my whole month free. I was going to be in Dallas for the Veterans for Peace convention. The last straw was on Wednesday, Aug. 3 – the 14 Marines who were killed and George Bush saying that all of our soldiers had died for a noble cause and we had to honor the sacrifices of the fallen by continuing the mission. I had just had it. That was enough and I had this idea to go to Crawford.

The first day we were there – this is how unplanned it was – we were sitting in lawn chairs, about six of us, underneath the stars with one flashlight between us, and we were going to the bathroom in a 10-gallon bucket.

DeDe: Five-gallon…

CS: A five-gallon bucket, sorry. So that’s how well planned this action was. We just planned it as we were going along and, for something so spontaneous, it turned out to be incredibly powerful and successful. It’s hard for some people to believe how spontaneous it was.

TD: You’ve written that George Bush refusing to meet with you was the spark that lit the prairie fire – and that his not doing so reflected his cowardice. You also said that if he had met you that fatal… fateful day…

Joan Baez: Fatal day…

TD: Fatal – it was fatal for him – things might have turned out quite differently.

CS: If he had met with me, I know he would have lied to me. I would have called him on his lies and it wouldn’t have been a good meeting, but I would have left Crawford. I would have written about it, probably done a few interviews, but it wouldn’t have sparked this exciting, organic, huge peace movement. So he really did the peace movement a favor by not meeting with me.

TD: I thought his fatal blunder was to send out [National Security Advisor Stephen] Hadley and [Deputy White House Chief of Staff Joe] Hagin as if you were the prime minister of Poland. [She laughs.] And it suddenly made you in terms of the media…

CS: …credible.

TD: So what did Hadley and Hagin say to you?

CS: They said, “What do you want to tell the president?” I said, “I want to ask the president, what is the noble cause my son died for?” And they kept telling me: Keep America safe from terrorism for freedom and democracy. Blah-blah-blah… all the excuses I wasn’t going to take, except from the President. Then we talked about weapons of mass destruction and the lack thereof, about how they had really believed it. I was: Well, really, Mr. Stephen (Yellowcake Uranium) Hadley… I finally said, “This is a waste of time. I might be a grieving mother, but I’m not stupid. I’m very well informed and I want to meet with the president.” And so they said, “Okay, we’ll pass on your concerns to the president.”

They said at one point, “We didn’t come out here thinking we’d change your mind on policy.” And I said, “Yes you did.” They thought they were going to intimidate me, that they were going to impress me with the high level of administration official they had sent out, and after they explained everything to me, I was going to go [her voice becomes liltingly mocking], “Ohhhh, I really never saw it that way. Okay, let’s go guys.” You know, that’s exactly what they thought they were going to do to me. And I believe it was a move that did backfire because, as you said, it gave me credibility and then, all of a sudden, the White House press corps thought this might be a story worth covering.

TD: What was that like? I had been reading your stuff on the Internet for over a year, but…

CS: I think in progressive circles I was very well known. But all of a sudden I was known all over the world. My daughters were in Europe when my mother had her stroke. My husband and I decided not to tell the girls. We didn’t want to ruin their vacation, but they saw it on TV. So it really just spread like wildfire. And not only did it bring wanted attention, it brought unwanted attention from the right-wing media. But that didn’t affect me, that didn’t harm me at all.

I’d been doing this a long time. I’d been on Wolf Blitzer, Chris Matthews, all those shows. I’d done press conferences. It was just the intensity that spiked up. But my message has always remained the same. I didn’t just fall off some pumpkin truck on Aug. 6 and start doing this. The media couldn’t believe someone like me could be so articulate and intelligent and have my own message. Number one, I’m a woman; number two, I’m a grieving mother; so they had the urge to marginalize me, to pretend like somebody’s pulling my strings. Our president’s not even articulate and intelligent. Someone must be pulling his strings, so someone must be pulling Cindy Sheehan’s, too. That offended me. Oh my gosh, you think someone has to put words into my mouth! [She laughs.] Do some research!

TD: Did you feel they were presenting you without some of your bluntness?

CS: God forbid anybody speak bluntly or tell the truth. Teresa Heinz Kerry, they marginalized her, too, because she always spoke her mind.

TD: Would you like to speak about your bluntness a little, because words you use like “war crimes” aren’t ones Americans hear often.

CS: All you have to do is look at the Nuremberg Tribunal or the Geneva Conventions. Clearly they’ve committed war crimes. Clearly. It’s black and white. It’s not me coming up with this abstract idea. It’s like, well, did you put a bullet in that person’s head or didn’t you? “Yes, I did.” Well, that’s a crime. It’s not shades of gray. They broke every treaty. They broke our own Constitution. They broke Nuremberg. They broke the Geneva Conventions. Everything. And if somebody doesn’t say it, does it mean it didn’t happen? Somebody has to say it, and I’ll say it. I’ve called George Bush a terrorist. He says a terrorist is somebody who kills innocent people. That’s his own definition. So, by George Bush’s own definition, he is a terrorist, because there are almost 100,000 innocent Iraqis that have been killed. And innocent Afghanis that have been killed.

And I think a lot of the mainstream opposition is glad I’m saying it, because they don’t have to say it. They’re not strong enough or brave enough or they think they have something politically at stake. We’ve had Congress members talk about impeachment and war crimes. I’ve heard them. But they’re the usual suspects. They’re marginalized, too. They’ve always been against the war, so we can’t listen to them.

You know, I had always admired people like the woman who started Mothers Against Drunk Driving or John Walsh for starting the Adam Walsh Foundation after his son was killed. I thought I could never do anything like that to elevate my suffering or my tragedy, and then, when it happened to me, I found out I did have the strength.

[It’s about 5:30 when we pull up at a Hyatt Hotel. Cindy, Dede, and I proceed to the deserted recesses of the hotel’s restaurant where Cindy has her first modest meal of the day. The rest of the interview takes place between spoonfuls of soup.]

TD: I’ve read a lot of articles about you in which your son Casey is identified as an altar boy or an Eagle Scout, but would you be willing to tell me a little more about him?

CS: He was very calm. He never got mad. He never got too wild. One way or the other, he didn’t waver much. I have another son and two daughters. He was the oldest one and they just idolized him. He never gave anybody trouble, but he was a procrastinator, the kind of person who, if he had a big project at school, would wait until the day before to do it. But when he had a job – he worked full time before he went into the Army and he was never late for work or missed a day in two years. I think that’s pretty amazing. The reason we talk about him being an altar boy was that church was his number one priority, even when he was away from us in the Army. He helped at the chapel. He never missed Mass. He was an usher. He was a Eucharistic minister. When he was at home, he was heavily involved in my youth ministry.

For eight years I was a youth minister at our parish and for three of those years in high school he was in my youth group; then for three of those years in college he helped me.

TD: Tell me about his decision to join the Army.

CS: A recruiter got hold of him, probably at a vulnerable point in his life, promised him a lot of things, and didn’t fulfill one of the promises. It was May of 2000. There was no 9/11. George Bush hadn’t even happened. When George Bush became his commander-and-chief, my son’s doom was sealed. George Bush wanted to invade Iraq before he was even elected president. While he was still governor of Texas he was talking about: “If I was commander-and-chief, this is what I would do.”

Back then, my son was promised a $20,000 signing bonus. He only got $4,000 of that when he finished his advanced training. He was promised a laptop, so he could take classes from wherever he was deployed in the world. He never got that. They promised him he could finish college because he only had one year left when he went in the Army. They would never let him take a class. They promised him he could be a chaplain’s assistant, which was what he really wanted to do; but, when he got to boot camp, they said that was full and he could be a Humvee mechanic or a cook. So he chose Humvee mechanic. The most awful thing the recruiter promised him was: Even if there was a war, he wouldn’t see combat because he scored so high on the ASVAB [Career Exploration] tests. He would only be in war in a support role. He was in Iraq for five days before he was killed in combat.

TD: Did you discuss Iraq with him at all?

CS: Yes, we did. He didn’t agree with it. Nobody in our family agreed with it. He said, “I wish I didn’t have to go, Mom, but I have to. It’s my duty and my buddies are going.” I believe we as Americans have every right to, and should be willing to, defend our country if we’re in danger. But Iraq had nothing to do with keeping America safe. So that’s why we disagreed with it. He reenlisted after the invasion of Iraq, because he was told if he didn’t, he’d have to go to Iraq anyway – he’d be stop-lossed – but if he did, he’d get to choose a new MOS [military specialty] when he got home.

TD: Can you tell me something about your own political background?

CS: I’ve always been a pretty liberal Democrat, but I don’t think this issue is partisan. I think it’s life and death. Nobody asked Casey what political party he belonged to before they sent him to die in an unjust and immoral war.

TD: You met with Hillary Clinton yesterday, didn’t you? What do you think generally of the Democratic… well, whatever it is?

CS: They’ve been very weak. I think Kerry lost because he didn’t come out strong against the war. He came out to be even more of a nightmare than George Bush. You know, we’ll put more troops in; I’ll hunt down terrorists; I’ll kill them! That wasn’t the right thing to say. The right thing to say was: This war was wrong; George Bush lied to us; people are dead because of it; they shouldn’t be dead; and if I’m elected, I’ll do everything to get our troops home as soon as possible. Then, instead of seeing the failure Kerry was with his middle-of-the-road, wishy-washy, cowardly policies, the rest of the Democrats have just kept saying the same things.

Howard Dean came out and said he hopes that the president is successful in Iraq. What’s that mean? How can somebody be successful when we have no goals or defined mission or objectives to achieve there? They’ve been very cowardly and spineless. What we did at Camp Casey was give them some spine. The doors are open to them, Democrats and Republicans alike. As [former Congressman and Win Without War Director] Tom Andrews said, if they won’t see the light, they’ll feel the heat. And I think they’re feeling the heat.

I can see it happening. I can see some Republicans like Chuck Hagel and Walter Jones breaking ranks with the party line. We met with a Republican yesterday – I don’t want to say his name because I don’t want to scare him off – but he seems to be somebody we can work with. Of course, as it gets closer to the congressional elections, we’ll be letting his constituents know that he can be worked with.

TD: So you’re planning to go into the elections as a force?

CS: It’s totally about the war, about their position on the war. If people care about that issue, then that’s what they should make it about too. We’re starting a “Meet with the Moms” campaign. We’re going to target every single congressman and senator to show their constituents exactly where they stand on the war. People in the state of New York, for instance, should look at their senators and say, if you don’t come out for bringing our troops home as soon as possible, we’re not going to reelect you.

TD: Did Hillary give you any satisfaction at all?

CS: Her position is still to send in more troops and honor the sacrifices of the fallen, which sounds like a Bush position, but the dialogue was open.

TD: Don’t you think it’s strange, these politicians like [Senator] Joe Biden, for example, who talk about sending in more troops, even though we all know there are no more troops?

CS: Yes… Where you gettin’ ’em? Where you gettin’ ’em? It’s crazy. I mean we’re going to send more troops in there and leave our country even more vulnerable? Leave us open for attack somewhere else, or to be attacked by natural and man-made disasters again?

TD: You want the troops out now. Bush isn’t about to do that, but have you thought about how you would proceed if you could?

CS: When we say now, we don’t mean that they can all come home tomorrow. I hope everybody knows that. We have to start by withdrawing our troops from the cities, bringing them to the borders and getting them out. We have to replace our military with something that looks Arabic, something that looks Iraqi, to rebuild their country. You know, they have the technology, they have the skills, but they don’t have any jobs right now. How desperate for a job does one have to be to stand in line to apply to the Iraqi National Guard? I mean, they’re killed just standing in line! Give the Iraqis as much help and support as they need to rebuild their country, which is in chaos. When our military presence leaves, a lot of the violence and insurgency will die. There will be some regional struggles with the different communities in Iraq, but that’s happening right now. The British put together a country that should never have been put together. Maybe it should be split into three different countries – who knows? But that’s up to them, not us.

TD: And what do you actually expect? We have three and a half more years of this administration…

CS: No, we don’t! [She chuckles.] I think Katrina’s going to be his Monica. It’s not a matter of “if” any more, it’s a matter of “when,” because clearly… clearly, they’re criminals. I mean, look at the people who got the first no-bid contracts to clean up and rebuild New Orleans. It’s Halliburton again. It’s crazy. One negative effect of Camp Casey was it took a lot of heat off Karl Rove for his hand in the [Valerie] Plame case. But I hear indictments are coming down soon. So that’s one way it’s going to come about. George Bush is getting ready to implode. I mean have you seen him lately? He’s a man who’s out of control.

[Note: For those who would like to read Cindy Sheehan in her own words, or more about her, check out her archive at LewRockwell.com, or go to the Truthout Web site, which has been carrying her latest statements and has extensive coverage on her, or visit AfterDowningStreet.com, which offers thorough, up-to-date coverage of her activities and much else.]

Copyright 2005 TomDispatch

Author: Tom Engelhardt

An editor in publishing for the last 25 years, Tom Engelhardt is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War era, now out in a revised edition with a new preface and afterword, and Mission Unaccomplished, TomDispatch Interviews With American Iconoclasts and Dissenters. He is at present consulting editor for Metropolitan Books, a fellow of the Nation Institute, and a teaching fellow at the journalism school of the University of California, Berkeley. Visit his Web site. This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com.