WASHINGTON — By the strictest terms and in the most fundamental way, President Bush is right not to meet with Cindy Sheehan, the grieving mother who created the encamped protest down in Crawford, Texas.
There are thousands of parents and relatives who, like her, have lost loved ones in Iraq and many of them would also like to talk to the president. If he opens the door to her, why not open the door to all of them? In fact, meeting with Ms. Sheehan would open the door to meetings with anyone who feels passionately about any topic and wants to talk to the president.
That's the reality of the situation. The objective reality. But, of course, for anyone occupying the Oval Office, there's also the political reality, which is this: Mr. Bush should have met with Sheehan when she arrived in Crawford. He should have talked with her about her loss, the hard road ahead and the stakes in Iraq - with the cameras rolling if that's what she wanted.
Because the political reality is that the Cindy Sheehan story isn't about Sheehan at all, it's about the public perception of Iraq - and the polls show troubling times ahead for the president.
By now you've probably heard all about Sheehan. You know her son died in Iraq. You know she met with Bush last year - when he reportedly referred to her as "mom." You know she now demands to meet with him again. The question is, why do you know this? And how has Cindy Sheehan become a topic on TV, in print, and on everything from Rush Limbaugh's and Al Franken's radio shows?
In Sheehan, the media have the story they love most, the personal story and face that illuminate a larger issue. That issue is that the public has turned against the war in Iraq. A Gallup Poll this month found that nearly 6 in 10 think the war hasn't made America safer; 56 percent say it's time to start withdrawing troops; and 54 percent say it was a mistake to go in to start with. All of which means that Sheehan's position has, for the moment, become a kind of a proxy for the majority position in the country. The common perception among many is that the media control the agenda in the US. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don't. Often, particularly in the world of 24-hour cable news, news organizations actually respond to what they see or hear from the public. They give the public what it wants, and in the case of Sheehan they have - and then some.
Sheehan and her supporters have picked a prime location in Crawford, surrounded by a bored press whom they've fed daily briefings and interviews to fuel the story. And the anti-Sheehan forces may feel their rallies and counter protests "support the president," but what they've really done is offered more pictures and more story lines to the media.
Crawford has become a televised ant farm for the Iraq debate. Politically it doesn't help the president. That is especially true when the news that keeps coming out of Iraq is bad, keeping the public in a down mood about that nation's long-term health and survival.
The question for the president is, now what? Meeting with Sheehan at this point is extremely unlikely. It would almost certainly be portrayed as "caving" in some way - even if it did defuse the situation somewhat. The problem is that if he does nothing, the situation almost certainly won't go away on its own. Sheehan has decided to keep the PR push going with that most favorite and telegenic move, a bus tour, helping generate local press coverage nationwide. And she has set the stage for what could become a pivotal moment in the Bush presidency Sept. 24 when she arrives in Washington for a "Peace and Justice" rally.
Such rallies against the Iraq war have gone on since its start, but never when the public was as unhappy as it is now and when the press was so tuned in. This could spell real trouble for the White House.
Once issues and movements reach a critical mass they take on a life of their own and become very difficult to stop.
• Dante Chinni writes a twice monthly political column for the Monitor.