Is Sheehan a Spark or a Flicker?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, August 18, 2005; 11:45 AM

Is Cindy Sheehan the spark igniting an antiwar movement that threatens the Bush presidency? Or is she just an over-hyped flicker that will be extinguished with the next turn of the news cycle?

The White House is counting on it being the latter. As the Washington Post's Jim VandeHei explained in a Live Online discussion yesterday: "The White House thinks this whole story is a silly obsession of bored reporters with nothing better to do during the slow August."

But with more than a thousand Sheehan-inspired vigils all over the country last night -- and a national conversation unleashed -- there are reasons to think the White House may be wrong.

A Conversation

Joe Garofoli writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "Vacaville resident Cindy Sheehan camped out near President Bush's vacation ranch in Crawford, Texas, in the hope of inspiring a national conversation about the war.

"Her plea for Bush to explain what 'noble cause' her son Casey died for in Iraq last year also has inspired a national conversation about Sheehan. And her name has become shorthand for what people think of the war.

"Sheehan has been called everything from a 'kook' to an anti-Semite by conservative bloggers and pundits over the past few days. But it's clear her message is reaching new audiences. . . .

"Whether one supports Sheehan's position or not, she put the war back on the front pages in the middle of August and brought the war home to suburbia in a way other antiwar organizers hadn't been able to do."

The Vigils

Edwin Chen writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Antiwar demonstrators staged candlelight vigils around the country Wednesday evening, freshly energized by the tenacity of Cindy Sheehan, the California mother of a fallen soldier, who has camped out for almost two weeks near President Bush's central Texas ranch, demanding a face-to-face meeting with him.

"In Washington, 400 to 500 demonstrators gathered silently in front of the White House -- one of a dozen or so vigils scheduled for the nation's capital and its suburbs."

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "Supporters of Cindy Sheehan held more than 1,500 candlelight vigils across the country on Wednesday night in solidarity with this mother of a soldier killed in Iraq, who has set up a protest encampment down the road from President Bush's ranch here. . . .

"Organizers said the response showed how Ms. Sheehan had become a catalyst for an antiwar movement that had been relatively unfocused since the 2004 presidential campaign.

"'She's like a herald, waking everybody up,' said Tom Matzzie, the Washington director for MoveOn.org."

Various Associated Press dispatches also reported:

"Near Philadelphia's Independence Hall, a few hundred people strained to hear the parent of another soldier killed in Iraq. 'This war must stop,' said Al Zappala, 65, whose 30-year-old son, Sgt. Sherwood Baker, died in an explosion in Baghdad in April 2004. . . .

"In Minnesota, about 1,000 war protesters stood on a bridge linking Minneapolis and St. Paul. 'This war has been disgraceful, with trumped-up reasons,' Sue Ann Martinson said. 'There were no weapons of mass destruction and the Iraqis didn't have anything to do with 9-11.'

"Nearly 200 people gathered on the courthouse steps in Hackensack, N.J., with many saying they were angry about the war but were supporting U.S. troops. . . .

"In Cincinnati's Fountain Square, some 200 people sang 'Give Peace A Chance' and lined one side of the square with signs, drawing honks of support from some passing motorists. . . .

"Along with candles and flags, some of the 300 people who gathered at a park in Nashville, Tenn., brought banners of support for Sheehan. One read: 'Thank you for your courage Cindy.' . . .

"Actor Richard Dreyfuss attended a vigil in the Studio City area of Los Angeles with his son and about 500 others."

Dana Milbank of The Washington Post visited the 500 demonstrators outside the White House last night, and concluded: "As Sheehan, mother of an American soldier killed in Iraq, camps out near President Bush's ranch in Texas this month in symbolic protest, foes of the war see the chance to achieve something that has eluded them for two years: galvanizing a mass antiwar movement. Sheehan, they say hopefully, could be their Rosa Parks."

Losing Hearts and Minds?

Bill Straub writes for the Scripps Howard News Service: "Public support for the war in Iraq has eroded substantially over the past few months and doubts are mounting over President Bush's ability to stop the bleeding and recapture the hearts and minds of the American people.

"Immanuel Wallerstein, a senior research scholar at Yale and former president of the International Sociological Association, said the public is still split on the wisdom of the Iraq war but that Bush's effort to rally support is 'basically shot.'

" 'He started with a lot of people for him and a certain number against him,' Wallerstein said. 'But the whole middle has lost faith. They see no light at the end of the tunnel, and they're right - there is no light at the end of the tunnel.'

"The public's dominant mood, he said, seesaws from wanting the United States to send more troops, to wanting to bring them all home, Wallerstein said. But the message is the same in each case - 'we can't go on like this.' "

Adam Nagourney and David D. Kirkpatrick write in the New York Times: " A stream of bad news out of Iraq, echoed at home by polls that show growing impatience with the war and rising disapproval of President Bush's Iraq policies, is stirring political concern in Republican circles, party officials said Wednesday.

"Some said that the perception that the war was faltering was providing a rallying point for dispirited Democrats and could pose problems for Republicans in the Congressional elections next year.

"Republicans said a convergence of events - including the protests inspired by the mother of a slain American soldier outside Mr. Bush's ranch in Texas, the missed deadline to draft an Iraqi Constitution and the spike in casualties among reservists - was creating what they said could be a significant and lasting shift in public attitude against the war. . . .

"Some Republicans suggested that the White House was not handling the issue adroitly, saying its insistence that the war was going well was counterproductive."

Who is Cindy Sheehan?

Eric Noe writes for ABC News: "In the 11 days since she set up camp just down the road from President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, Cindy Sheehan has gone from grieving mother and average American to the face of the country's increasingly boisterous antiwar movement."

The Move

Sheehan is planning to move her roadside operations to a plot of land closer to Bush's estate today.

Here's Dana Bash explaining one of the advantages to Wolf Blitzer: "This land, Wolf, is much, much closer to the president's ranch than where the site is right now. In fact, it is right up against the security checkpoint. It's so close that our camera crews who were there trying to find the land late yesterday actually got a glimpse of the president bike riding. Wolf, that is almost something we never see. It is quite rare, so it is very close to the president's ranch. Cindy Sheehan is much happier about that."

White House Stands Its Ground

Nicolle Devenish, White House communications director, spoke with Anderson Cooper on CNN last night about Sheehan: "The president understands that Mrs. Sheehan is grieving for the loss of her son and she has a disagreement about our policies. And I think anyone that is trying to make a point -- and she obviously, in addition to being grieving the loss of her son, is making a point -- she can rest assured that we've heard that side of the argument. And in the consideration about the best way to protect America and keep people safe here at home, we believe that engaging the enemy in places like Iraq and Afghanistan is the best way to do so."

A Political Opposition Awakes?

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) called on the White House yesterday to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of next year and criticized fellow Democrats for being too 'timid' in challenging the Bush administration's war policy.

"Feingold, who is among the Democrats considering a run for president in 2008, became the first senator to propose a specific deadline for pulling all 138,000 U.S. troops out of Iraq. His comments also laid bare the rising tension within his party about how to respond to President Bush on the war. . . .

" 'There's a deepening feeling of dismay in the country about the way things are going in Iraq,' Feingold said. He rejected Bush's assertion that a deadline would make it easier for insurgents to simply hang on. 'I think he's wrong. I think not talking about endgames is playing into our enemies' hand.' "

Incidentally, that assertion by Bush -- that a deadline would serve the insurgents -- is one of several that William E. Odom , head of the National Security Agency during the Reagan administration, challenges in an essay on NiemanWatchdog.org, the other Web site I work for.

"If I were a journalist," Odom writes, "I would list all the arguments that you hear against pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq, the horrible things that people say would happen, and then ask: Aren't they happening already? Would a pullout really make things worse? Maybe it would make things better."

Legacy Issues

Williams Douglas and Richard Chin write for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "No one has more at stake than President Bush as Iraq tries to draft a constitution.

"He has called the writing of the document a milestone in Iraq's drive toward self-reliance, a steppingstone for establishing an Arab democracy in the Middle East and the legal keystone to the stable government that's necessary before U.S. troops can come home. . . .

"The Iraqi government's failure to meet the Aug. 15 deadline for a draft constitution underscores Bush's political risk. If Iraq's Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds can overcome their most important differences and hammer out a meaningful constitution by Monday - the latest deadline they set - that could help stem the steady decline in U.S. public support for Bush's Iraq policy and buy the administration more time to train Iraqi forces and help ensure the nation's future stability.

"But if the Iraqis can't agree on the fundamental questions of how they'll govern themselves, Bush's historic gamble in Iraq could be lost, and with it his popularity today and his standing in history tomorrow, according to Middle East and domestic political analysts."

Echoes of Downing Street?

Bradley Graham writes in The Washington Post: "One month before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, three State Department bureau chiefs warned of 'serious planning gaps for post-conflict public security and humanitarian assistance' in a secret memorandum prepared for a superior.

"The State Department officials, who had been discussing the issues with top military officers at the Central Command, noted that the military was reluctant 'to take on 'policing' roles' in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The three officials warned that 'a failure to address short-term public security and humanitarian assistance concerns could result in serious human rights abuses which would undermine an otherwise successful military campaign, and our reputation internationally.' . . .

"The memo was one of several documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and made public yesterday by the National Security Archive, a nonprofit research group. Other documents detail the specifics of the Future of Iraq project, which brought together Iraqi exiles and U.S. experts in an attempt to plan for such things as a new banking system, a new military and a new constitution."

VandeHei on McClellan

Washington Post White House correspondent Jim VandeHei Live Online yesterday:

"San Francisco, Calif.: Why doesn't the press refuse to take briefings from Scott McClellan, who either lied to them about the Plame incident, or was lied to by the administration? Isn't his credibility shot?

"Jim VandeHei: Scott took a good beating when it was learned that the White House knew much more about the Plame leak than he and others let on last year. It's not entirely clear how much he knew about the involvement of other officials. But Scott has a lot of credibility with reporters. He is seen as someone who might not tell you a lot, but is not going to tell you a lie. More broadly, we go to the briefings if for no other reason to hear the White House spin on world events. They rarely figure into our daily reports because we will talk to Scott and others one on one and not in front of a crowd."

And later:

"Bethesda, Md.: My oh my it feels a lot like 1973, except the media is not leading the path to the truth. I think you are missing the point people are trying to make about media credibility and the White House. Scott McClellan was either lying or was lied to about Rove's involvement in the Plame affair. If Scott is a good guy he should resign instead of working for liars. If he lied, the media should shun him. But instead the media plays the game. 'Scott's a great guy'. Once again, a lie is made and no one is held accountable. If the media does not begin to look for truthful sources, the people of this country will shun the media.

"Jim VandeHei: Often in Washington, it takes time for accountability. Presumably, we will know when the investigation concludes if any one lied, and if so who and to whom. Of course, we look for honest sources and make calls every day about the credibility of the people we rely on for information."

Roberts Watch

Tom Brune writes in Newsday: "The White House broke the law when it interviewed D.C. Circuit Judge John G. Roberts last spring for the Supreme Court as he heard a challenge to the president's military tribunals, three legal ethicists said yesterday.

"Roberts, nominated by President George W. Bush on July 19, should have recused himself from Hamdan v. Rumsfeld to avoid an 'appearance of partiality,' the professors said in the online magazine Slate."

Stephen Gillers, David J. Luban, and Steven Lubet write in Slate: "Did administration officials or Roberts ask whether it was proper to conduct interviews for a possible Supreme Court nomination while the judge was adjudicating the government's much-disputed claims of expansive presidential powers? Did they ask whether it was appropriate to do so without informing opposing counsel?

"If they had asked, they would have discovered that the interviews violated federal law on the disqualification of judges."

Iran Watch

Neil King Jr. and Farnaz Fassihi write in the Wall Street Journal: "President Bush says the world is 'coalescing around the notion' that Iran must be barred from getting nuclear weapons. But two factors -- soaring oil prices and chaos in Iraq -- are giving Tehran new muscle in its diplomatic standoff with Europe and the U.S."

Columnist Humor

Newsday columnist Ellis Hennican has a little fun with Bush's summer reading list , which ostensibly includes

"Salt: A World History" by Mark Kurlansky, "Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar" by Edvard Radzinsky and "The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History" by John M. Barry.

Hennican writes: "Come on, what is George W. Bush really reading this summer at the ranch?

"And don't say, 'Middle East for Dummies.'

"Or 'Where's Waldo: Those WMD's Have To Be Here Somewhere.'. . . .

"The White House is trying to put an end to Bush-jabs just like those. Which is why Bush's people just put out that 'official' presidential summer-reading list, three smart-guy books supposedly being devoured by a man who almost never gets accused of excessive bookishness. . . .

"But there is one question, bubbling like a 10-cent pot boiler in the dry Texas air, a question that a single slow news day has made impossible to ignore: Is George W. Bush actually reading any of these big brain-busters?

"Or are they just, you know, sittin' there?"

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