Cindy Sheehan's Big Week in Washington

The ailing peace movement finds new life in a grieving mom

It's not easy being a professional peace mom—especially when everyone wants a piece of you. "I've been staying in a different place every night," says Cindy Sheehan, the 48-year-old California housewife who galvanized the anti-war movement and starred in the march against the Iraq war on Saturday in Washington, D.C.

Since she left her now famous Camp Casey—named for the 24-year-old son she lost in Iraq—outside President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, four weeks ago, Sheehan has been barnstorming the country, touring in a caravan of rented RVs and cars with some three dozen other military families and Vietnam and Iraq war vets. She and her fellow activists have been prowling the halls of Congress, insisting on face time with legislators. On Monday, Sheehan and several other parents of fallen soldiers were among some 370 activists arrested in a mass civil disobedience on the sidewalk outside the White House.

While right-wing critics like Rush Limbaugh like to suggest she's being bankrolled by Move On, Michael Moore, and other elements of the "limousine left," Sheehan's crusade is still very much a grassroots affair. When she and the rest of the Bring Them Home Now tour hit Washington this week to challenge Bush to meet with them and put the heat on Congress for funding the war, they crashed on couches and slept on bunkbeds at an international youth hostel.

Jesse Jackson compares Sheehan to Rosa Parks.
photo: Sarah Ferguson
Jesse Jackson compares Sheehan to Rosa Parks.

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That kind of dogged authenticity is the root of Sheehan's power. At Saturday's massive anti-war demonstration, she electrified the crowds with her plea not to let any more moms suffer the agony of losing a child in a war she says is unwinnable and "founded on lies." "We are here today because we don't want to see any more kids come home in coffins," she told the tens of thousands massed before her at the Ellipse. "How many more of other people's children are you willing to sacrifice for the lies?" she demanded, turning her anger toward Congress. "Shame on you for giving [Bush] the authority to invade Iraq."

It's a potent message, and one even hawkish supporters of the war like Senator Hillary Clinton are being forced to acknowledge. Not wanting to fall into the trap of looking callous for refusing a grieving mom, Clinton, Senate Minority leader Harry Reid, and even the chief of staff of Senate Majority leader Bill Frist agreed to sit down with the military families and Iraq war veterans who trooped through the Capitol all week. On Monday, Sheehan met with Indiana Democrat Dick Lugar, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—part of a grassroots lobbying push that drew 700 antiwar campaigners to the Hill. Republican senator John McCain is scheduled for a meeting on Tuesday.

For extra motivation, the pols can turn to the polls. A record two thirds of the American public now disapproves of Bush's handling of the war in Iraq, and 52 percent think we should get out "as soon as possible." That's in contrast to an ABC News/Washington Post poll taken two months ago, when 58 percent of those asked said they supported keeping troops in Iraq "until civil order is restored, even if that means continued U.S. military casualties."

Saturday's march, estimated by police at something more than 100,000 people and by organizers at around 300,000, marked a revival of protest on a scale not seen since the start of the U.S. invasion in 2003. More significant than the size of the march was its tone. In contrast to the almost giddy Bush-bashing of previous demos, there was a sense of somber urgency brought by the presence of hundreds of military families and alienated Iraq war vets. Their voices have given the movement a new center of gravity.

"Just like Rosa Parks, Cindy Sheehan has triggered a public policy debate that's bigger than her as a personality," Reverend Jesse Jackson said backstage. "She's unleashed a dynamic that is calling into question the basis of this war.

"You can be against the war and win re-election now. You can be against the war and get elected," Jackson continued. "We have Republicans who are starting to turn on Bush. That was not true a year ago, before Cindy Sheehan and before Katrina."

And that's also why the right is doing its best to derail the Cindy bandwagon, casting her as an anti-American, "professional griever." Beyond dredging for dirt in her personal life, Republican operatives are now trotting out their own pro-military moms in an effort to blunt Sheehan's message. They launched a "You Don't Speak for Me, Cindy" cross-country bus tour, which arrived in Washington on Sunday.

Their rally drew only several hundred supporters to the Washington Mall, where they held up signs like "Freedom Isn't Free" and "Saddam Is a WMD" as they listened to speakers like Watergate thief-turned-radio-pundit G. Gordon Liddy, who accused Sheehan of "whoring the good name of her son" and carrying out a "left-wing socialist agenda."

Also speaking out was Temple, Texas, native Gary Qualls, whose 20-year-old son, Lance Cpl. Louis Qualls, was killed in Falluja last year. Qualls brandished a small white cross, pulled from a memorial Sheehan's group had set up in Crawford, with his kid's name painted on it. "This is the very first cross repossessed from Cindy Sheehan's unholy camp!" he declared, his face red with anger. "We need nothing but pure honor and respect for our service members and for our leader George Bush."

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