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Peace mom becomes international celebrity
San Francisco Chronicle


August 16, 2005

CRAWFORD, Texas - Asking whether she was "The New Face of Protest?" the liberal political magazine The Nation ran a photo in March of a middle-aged woman holding a picture of her 24-year-old son.

The answer from anti-war organizations as international media have spread the story of Cindy Sheehan, whose son Casey died last year in Iraq, is a resounding yes. The anti-war movement has eagerly grabbed the coattails of the 48-year-old Vacaville, Calif., mom tented up in a drainage ditch along the one-lane road that leads to President Bush's vacation ranch.

United for Peace and Justice, the nation's largest umbrella organization of anti-war groups, is organizing supportive vigils across the country. Donors large and small have poured thousands of dollars into Sheehan's organization, Gold Star Families for Peace, and other groups that oppose the war.

Fenton Communications, a national public relations consulting firm in San Francisco that often works for liberal groups, has arrived to help coordinate Sheehan's media relations. And a TV ad aired in nearby Waco, Texas, on Saturday that featured Sheehan saying, "Mr. President, I want to tell you face to face how much this hurts. How many more of our loved ones need to die in this senseless war?"

It is perhaps a sign of her international celebrity that news of Sheehan's pending divorce attracted media attention this week. Her husband, Patrick Sheehan, filed for the divorce, citing "irreconcilable differences" for the demise of the couple's 28-year marriage.

The development spread quickly over the Internet, then over the wire services and out over the airwaves.

The chatter about it prompted the Sheehan camp to deny there was any truth to rumors or insinuations that the vigil and divorce were somehow connected.

"It's a private matter between her husband and herself, and it has nothing to do with what she is doing regarding Casey's death and her activism, " said a close aide to Sheehan. "As far as I know, the entire family, including Patrick, supports her commitment. They've been incredibly supportive of her."

Anti-war organizers hope Sheehan's story creates a tipping point in this country against the war. They have dubbed the triangular intersection of one-lane roads 5.5 miles into cattle country from Crawford's lone stoplight "Camp Casey."

But conservatives say Sheehan is a tool of the left that Middle America won't embrace. The national split over Sheehan's protest reaches into her own family: Her in-laws have released two statements saying they oppose her actions out of respect for her son's memory.

Coverage of Sheehan's spontaneous vigil is a godsend for the anti-war movement, which has been struggling to gain traction outside of liberal areas of the country. In Sheehan, organizers say they finally have a face that red-state America can relate to. They see in her a human reflection of sentiment expressed in this month's Associated Press/Ipsos poll, among others. Only 38 percent of respondents to that poll approve of Bush's handling of the war, a new low.

"We've had slogans like, 'No Blood for Oil,' and 'Bring the Troops Home Now,' but this is a real flesh-and-blood story," said Jodie Evans, a co-founder of Code Pink: Women for Peace, which has led many of the anti-war movement's guerrilla tactics and organized meetings of Iraqi and American citizens. "What works is that it is focused. It is one person's loss versus another person who caused that loss.

"Geez, she's a mom who's lost a child," said Evans, who teared up at Camp Casey this week as she recalled her own 2-year-old daughter dying 20 years ago. "Who can argue with that?"

The practical political question is whether the momentum gathering behind Sheehan will translate into political power in Washington. Members of Congress are circulating a letter asking Bush to meet with Sheehan, a request Sen. George Allen, R-Va., echoed in a CNN interview. But that effort won't go far unless more Americans - particularly conservatives and those on the fence - take up Sheehan's rallying call, "Meet With Cindy."

Glenn Smith, a veteran Texas political consultant who is organizing a counter-event to the evangelical-sponsored Justice Sunday II gathering in Nashville, said it's rare that a voice like Sheehan's emerges. "Probably the best thing the movement can do is get out of her way," said Smith, whose Nashville gathering of liberal faith leaders is called Freedom and Faith. "She doesn't need managing."

Smith has worked with Sheehan, a former Catholic youth minister, at other events involving left-leaning religious leaders and marvels that her voice "is so real. It didn't come out of a focus group or some kind of professional message guru. It's not a polished political message. It's more like Greek tragedy."

Whether Sheehan is the right person for the job of "the new face" is an open question. "I don't even realize it yet," she said. "I haven't been able to see any news or be on my computer or read e-mail because it's been full."


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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