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Cindy Sheehan’s Protest

August 16, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: Now to the political firestorm surrounding Cindy Sheehan, the grieving mother and activist whose anti-war protest in Texas has stirred new debate about U.S. involvement in Iraq. First, some background.

SPOKESPERSON: Everybody. . .

GWEN IFILL: The road leading to President Bush’s Crawford ranch has lately become the front line in a war against the war. At the center of the flurry of media coverage, protest and debate is Cindy Sheehan, the 48- year-old California mother and anti-war protester whose son, Casey, was killed in Iraq last year.

CINDY SHEEHAN: What’s the noble cause our children are dying for? What’s the noble cause our children have died for? And our children are fighting for right now? Those ones who stand behind me, and there’s more that stand behind us that aren’t here right now. All of us here, we don’t want him to use our loved ones’ names to continue the killing. We want them to use our loved ones’ names to bring our troops home.

GWEN IFILL: Sheehan has vowed to continue her vigil at the outpost she has named “Camp Casey” until President Bush agrees to meet with her. The president, who has opted not to meet with Sheehan, responded to questions about her protest last week.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Listen, I sympathize with Mrs. Sheehan. She feels strongly about her position, and she has every right in the world to say what she believes. This is America. She has a right to her position. And I’ve thought long and hard about her position. I’ve heard her position from others, which is “get out of Iraq now.” And it would be a mistake for the security of this country and the ability to lay the foundations for peace in the long run if we were to do so.

GWEN IFILL: Sheehan did meet with the president last year, and she has talked to senior aides since she arrived in Crawford. But now, she says, she has more to say.

PROTESTOR: We don’t want this Iraq War.

GWEN IFILL: Other anti-war groups have joined in, claiming her cause as their own.

CHARLES ANDERSON, Iraq Veterans Against the War: We’re going to day here until Mr. Bush comes out and talks to us and faces us and answers our questions instead of giving us sound bites.

GWEN IFILL: Others have paid for a television ad to air in nearby Waco.

CINDY SHEEHAN (commercial): You lied to us. And because of your lies, my son died.

MAN IN TRUCK: Texas is Bush country, that’s all I’ve got to say.

GWEN IFILL: What began as a small protest has also galvanized proponents of the war who question Sheehan’s motives. And one mother’s stubborn vigil has now become the latest flash point in the debate over war in Iraq. That debate has been fueled by polls, which show even people who initially supported the war, now express growing misgivings about it. As the protests along the two-lane road in Crawford continue, tension with the president’s neighbors has been building.

Today, a group of them asked the county to impose parking restrictions and ban future large protests near their homes. Sunday, one rancher fired a shotgun into the air near the encampment, later saying the protesters have overstayed their welcome. And last night, a pickup truck mowed down a row of roadside crosses that were part of the protesters’ salute to the war dead.

GWEN IFILL: Now for more on the Cindy Sheehan phenomenon, we’re joined by: Frank Gaffney, a columnist with the Washington Times, and president of the Center for Security Policy, a Washington think tank; and Joan Walsh, editor-in-chief of salon.com, an online news magazine.

Joan Walsh, what does Cindy Sheehan and what she’s doing down there in Texas what has that come to symbolize?

JOAN WALSH: Well Gwen, I think first and foremost she’s come to symbolize a mother’s grief and a nation’s grief and also a nation’s growing bewilderment about why we wound up in this war. You know, I think that she’s making the point that we’ve been lied to, that we’ve been told different shifting rationalizations for the war.

There were weapons of mass destruction; then there were programs that could lead to weapons of mass destruction. Then we were going in for democracy, and now last weekend we heard that we’ll settle for a moderate Islamic state. So I think she’s managed to come along at a time that really she’s catalyzed what were growing questions and growing concern about the death toll.

GWEN IFILL: Frank Gaffney you wrote today in the Washington Times that Cindy Sheehan is a poster child for surrender. Is that what you believe she symbolizes?

FRANK GAFFNEY: Yeah Let me be clear, I think she as a mother who lost a son who volunteered to try to help the people of Iraq have a government that was not a threat to them or to us, and lost his life, as such a person she deserves both our gratitude and our sympathy.

But I think she clearly has morphed in recent days perhaps to some extent at the hands of others, but nonetheless has become an advocate for cutting and running from Iraq, I think without a great deal of clarity as to how on earth that will actually help, either the people of Iraq or if she doesn’t care about the people of Iraq the people of the United States.

It will clearly be the case that enemies of this country in a global war of which Iraq is one front will be emboldened and hardened, even as I think they are by these sorts of indications that we’re losing our nerve, that we’re being bloodied and we’re going to try to or at least some of us are going to try to compel the president to give up, that will only bring the threat we face currently principally overseas to our shores and I think do so in a way that will make the losses we’ve sustained in Iraq pale by comparison.

GWEN IFILL: Joan Walsh, I asked Frank Gaffney about his writing, so I want to ask you about yours. You wrote in Salon that you accuse the president of what you describe as cluelessness and callousness. But he has me with her before and he’s met with other families, according to the White House.

JOAN WALSH: He’s met with the Sheehans and he’s met with other families, but by her account he didn’t know anything about Casey; he came in and called her mom. But that’s not the real issue. I think the real issue, to hear frank talk about the fact that Cindy Sheehan will give aid and comfort to our enemies, the idea that our exercising our democratic rights to have a debate about this war, a debate that we really should have had before we went into war, with honest premises about why we were going, that gives way too much credit to our enemies.

And when we say things like that our enemies have already won. I think the president has shown an incredible tin ear on this, and I think Frank probably agrees with me. The worst thing he’s done was to come out on Saturday and say, oh, I can’t meet with this nice lady because I’ve got to go ride my bike because the American people want me to exercise and to have a balanced life, when Casey Sheehan lost his life.

I think the president is really being shown up as somebody who is rather callous and clueless by the way he’s handing her. He needs to talk to her.

GWEN IFILL: Frank Gaffney what do you agree with and what do you disagree with in what she just had to say?

FRANK GAFFNEY: Well, listen, I think Cindy Sheehan has become a little bit of a phenomenon in the August doldrums. She has cleverly, again either on her own initiative or that of handlers, figured out that if you position yourself in the vicinity of a press corps that has a lot of time on its hands down in Crawford, Texas, you’re likely to get a lot of publicity and attention to yourself.

I would not dignify somebody who has called the President of the United States a liar, who has urged had that he be prosecuted for war crimes, who has even indicated she thinks we should withdraw from Afghanistan with a second meeting when the president I think has an awful lot of other things to do.

I would much rather have the president spending his time leading the nation on this war in a much more vigorous way. A fraction of the capital that he spent on Social Security I think needs to be expended on explaining the points that I was making earlier. This is in fact a global war against a hostile ideology, I call it “Islamafascism;” it will not be appeased; it will only redouble its efforts if we cut and run.

And I’m not suggesting for a moment any more than the president was that Cindy Sheehan isn’t entitled to say what she wants. I’m just saying that words do have consequences, and there’s no doubt about it, our enemies understand, they cannot defeat us militarily but they hope to do what a previous enemy did in Vietnam, and that is to sap our will, to demonstrate that we are as weak and as resolute as they have long believed we are, that cutting and running that they precipitated in Lebanon and in Somalia may be replicated here but with infinitely more dire consequences because this is indeed a global war and they will come after us here at home.

GWEN IFILL: Joan Walsh, to what degree has Cindy Sheehan’s cause been hijacked by other people who disagree with the president on just about everything, not just this war?

JOAN WALSH: You know, I really don’t see that at all, Gwen, and I’m hearing people say some of that and I’m hearing Frank talk about the way she’s being used and her handlers. You know, she showed up in Crawford with a handful of people, yes, she’s been joined by other groups, yes, other people will try to piggyback on this.

But I think the thing that has made this “Camp Casey” phenomenon a phenomenon, as Frank says, is that it’s really been an outpost of grief and also of dialogue. You know, it’s been interesting to me to watch her, as she’s dealt with people who come to the camp and don’t agree with her. She’s had a dialogue with a soldier; she’s had a dialogue with a trucker whose son died in Iraq who support the war. And those conversations end with hugs and I love you.

She’s had an open heart and an open approach to people who disagree with her, and I think that’s the symbolism that’s really made this a kind of international phenomenon. I think it’s very condescending to say she’s being used. She’s not being used. She’s an activist, she’s been on this issue for a year and she’s breaking through because the nation is ready. The nation is souring on this war and Frank knows that.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Gaffney, why wouldn’t the president just meet with her? It seems that might defuse the whole situation. Do you think that would be a bad idea?

FRANK GAFFNEY: Oh, listen, I’m not going to give the president PR advice on how to handle a sticky issue like this. I think it would probably be about as ill advised as cutting and running from Iraq. As to whether people are using Cindy, obviously people who are putting television ads up for her are exploiting her celebrity of the moment.

And, look, the problem is not whether if we hug people we will demonstrate that we’re good people. The problem is we’re dealing with people who wish to destroy us. And I don’t know how to make that more starkly or more clearly. They have in mind creating a global kalifate, they call it, subjecting all of us to a rule of Shariah like the Taliban. I happen to think it was a very honorable and laudatory thing that we helped deliver the people of Afghanistan from that kind of world and indeed that we’ve helped deliver the people of Iraq from that kind of world, at least for the moment.

I think far from condescending comments about people who accomplish those sorts of things, we ought to be grateful for them and I hope the president will continue, as I say, to make the case to the American people that not only were these good things in their own right but they are an incredibly important ingredient in a larger global campaign which we cannot afford to lose.

GWEN IFILL: Joan Walsh got the first word, Frank Gaffney, we’ll give you the last word. Thank you both very much.

FRANK GAFFNEY: Thank you.